Saturday, March 17, 2007

Human remains as a museum artefact

by Michel Walraven


Should human remains be part of a museum collection? That's a question the management of the Amsterdam Museum for the Tropics, the Tropenmuseum, is asking itself. The museum made an odd discovery in the basement of a medical institute: a forgotten collection - which actually belonged to the museum - of hundreds of human skulls, bones and even organs stored in formaldehyde in glass jars.

Many of them are the remains of indigenous inhabitants of Java and Papua, former colonies of the Netherlands. The collection had been loaned to the medical institute three decades ago. The institute kept it in storage and has now returned it to the Tropenmuseum, which had completely forgotten it existed at all.

The museum in AmsterdamThe bones were used by the Tropenmuseum up to the 1960s for an area of scientific reasearch and study named physical anthropology. Since this study was perceived as being related to the infamous racial studies by the Nazis during World War Two, most scientific organisations ended this sort of research after the Holocaust. However, the Tropenmuseum went on with this until the 1960s. There is, however, no evidence that the Tropenmuseum was actually engaged in racial studies. The bones - often stolen from tribal burial grounds - were sent to Netherlands between 1915 and 1965.

A good home
The remains were rediscovered six years ago. Since then the museum has categorised them and documented the collection in detail. Recently, the museum announced it wanted to find a good home for the remains, possibly returning them to where they came from.

But the question of what to with these remains is not an easy one to answer. It raises many more questions, such as: who officially owns them? The museum itself, or perhaps the Indonesian government? Or maybe the tribes themselves or relatives of the people whose remains they are? And the questions don't end there. For example,does anybody want the remains back? And if not, should they be buried somewhere or should they perhaps be cremated?

Not the same thing
All together a very sensitive issue to be sitting on a bone collection used for a disputed science and stolen from a people that were once colonised. However, museum curator David van Duuren explains that physical anthropology is not the same as the Nazi-related racial studies:

"This was in a way butterfly collecting, there were no racial theories developed in this institute, but our scientists wanted to perform a comparative study and they wanted a complete collection. Cultural anthropologists collect artefacts, physical anthropologists collected human remains." Museum Director Lejo Schenk says he knows the issue is sensitive: "We realise this is a very sensitive issue, we know that in a specific period in the Twentieth Century, physical anthropology was connected to racial studies. We are aware of that, and collecting butterflies can easily be mixed up with something really bad."Proper solution
Having the bone collection in its possession is not something the museum is entirely happy with. Mr Schenk feels a proper solution should be found. But, what to do with the remains? Should they be sent back to where the came from? Are there still people that want them? Or should they perhaps be buried or cremated?

The museum knows there are a lot of moral, ethical and political questions involved, suchh as: who can own human remains and who can claim authority? The museum wants to make sure that they deal with this sensitive issue appropriately. They have invited everyone who could possibly make any claim to talk to them. It could take many years before this issue is solved.

The relatives should decide
Now the main question would probably be, when it comes to the Papua remains, what does the community itself - wich consists of close to 300 tribes - think of all this? After all, the bones and skulls in question were once their great great grandparents. Viktor Kaisiepo is Papuan himself and also represents the Papuan community abroad. He's pleased the museum is not making any decisions on its own, but he still needs to talk to people in Papua about what to do with the remains: "I am challenged that the remains of my people are found. But we have to talk about the ownership. We need to approach this carefully because there may be a lot of emotions involved. I will need to speak to my people to see what we want to do with these remains. I will be in service to my people. I will ask them if they can and will receive them back and how that would happen."

He says that, when it comes to the matter of human remains, the indigenous people should be in charge of deciding on what to do with them.

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