Natural History Museum halts tests on aboriginal bones pending court hearing

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Place: 
Tasmania
London

The Natural History Museum (NHM) in London has temporarily halted scientific tests on the bones of 18 Tasmanian aboriginals in its collection following an injunction brought by representatives of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC).

The NHM agreed last November to repatriate the bones after a claim was lodged by the Australian government and the TAC. At the time, the museum negotiated a compromise which allowed them to carry out three months of scientific tests on the remains before returning them in March this year. The museum's director, Dr Michael Dixon, was quoted as saying, "We are a science-based organisation but we do not believe that the scientific value should trump all other claims; nor do we believe that the ethical, religious, and spiritual claims should necessarily trump the scientific value." However, the museum halted its tests last week until the results of the court hearing, which has been postponed until 7 March.

The NHM intended to carry out photography, measurement, CT-scanning and DNA analysis on the human remains, some of which would have involved invasive and destructive sampling. A press release from the museum claims that this data collection is vital because the remains "represent people from a time when Tasmania was isolated from the rest of the world, so they are genetically different from other human populations, including those in mainland Australia." The aboriginal bones are likely to be cremated after repatriation, so any further opportunity to study them will be lost. However, the TAC has described the tests as "mutilation" and "scientific racism", claiming that they are offensive and "contradictory to the Aboriginal tradition".

Fight for Aboriginal ancestors goes on -- Guardian

Aboriginal remains tests halted -- BBC News

Scientists' dismay as museum gives back aboriginal remains -- The Times

Aboriginal remains case affects world collections -- Australian Times

Aboriginal centre says museum using dirty tactics -- ABC News online

Natural History Museum website