1 November 2013

The Natural History Museum in London agreed to repatriate ancestral remains to Torres Strait Islander communities.

Carol Christophersen and Emma Loban at the Natural History Museum, London, UK

In 2011, the Natural History Museum in London—a scientifically and culturally rich museum—agreed to repatriate more than 100 ancestral remains to Torres Strait Islander communities.

As part of this agreement, the museum sponsored Torres Strait Islander Emma Loban from Thursday Island to work and study at the museum for six months. The Australian Government also sponsored an Aboriginal woman, Carol Christophersen from Darwin, to work and study at the museum through the Indigenous Repatriation Program.

Emma and Carol had a unique opportunity to learn the skills of museum collection management, conservation and activities associated with repatriation from one of the world's leading museums. The museum also gained from the experience because the two were able to impart their understanding and authority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, histories and practices.

The partnership established between the Natural History Museum, Indigenous communities and the Australian Government, is vital in the complex dialogue of repatriation. The partnership helped to cultivate a shared understanding amongst the museum community of the cultural importance of repatriation and how Australian Indigenous perspectives can inform this important activity.

'Other museums could learn from what is happening here. That is part of the idea of getting out and talking to different groups and institutions [in the UK] because they all have human remains that belong in Australia. So it is planting a bit of a seed. Maybe it is not so scary, having an Indigenous person as part of your institution informing you. You might learn something and maybe we have a story to tell you about our shared history. Maybe you will learn something more about humanity'.
—Carol Christophersen

This fellowship with the Natural History Museum is likely to be the first of many. It will see Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples working in museums and on repatriation-related activities.

In recognition of her experience, Ms Christophersen travelled to the Czech Republic in October 2012 to represent her own community in escorting ancestral remains from the Moravian Museum in Brno, Czech Republic back to the Northern Territory.

Carol provided support and guidance to the four community representatives during their repatriation journey to and from the Czech Republic. Through her work at the Northern Land Council and the Natural History Museum, Carol was well placed to establish personal and professional connections with everyone involved in this repatriation.

The Indigenous Repatriation Program actively supports Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to claim the return of their ancestral remains held in overseas institutions. In Australia, the program supports state and territory museums, and the National Museum of Australia, to facilitate the return of ancestral remains and secret/sacred objects held by their institutions to communities.