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Germany Rethinks Repatriation Principles

Like museums in the U.S. and Britain have been doing, the Museum of Medical History in Berlin, Germany is rethinking its principles governing remains.
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Like many museums in the United States and Britain have been doing, the Museum of Medical History in Berlin, Germany is rethinking its principles governing the display of human remains, reported the New York Times.

In late April, the medical museum and officials who direct the anatomy collection of Charité Hospital, a sister organization also in Berlin, returned 33 skulls and skeletons to members of the Torres Strait Islands between northern Australia and Papua New Guinea.

“These are very moving moments for indigenous people around the world,” Ned David told the Times. He is a Torres Strait islander who helps lead a repatriation group and he attended the Berlin ceremony where the 33 skulls were returned. “They are bringing their ancestral remains home. There are mixed emotions, one obviously of relief, so it’s a celebration. And then the moment is tinged with sadness for what was involved with the removal of the remains.”

Also in April the German Museums Association issued new ethical guidelines on how museums should handle remains when facing repatriation claims. The 70-page report references Kant’s concept of human dignity and urges museums to develop a policy, though it concludes “there is no simple answer that can be applied equally to all collections.”

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Germany is following in the footsteps of Britain and the United States, which began facing repatriation claims decades ago. In the late 1980s the Smithsonian Institution started repatriating American Indian ancestors, and in 1990 the United States passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

While the cultural property versus scientific study debate lingers, repatriation experts say many museums are becoming more sensitive.

“There’s a lot of work to do,” said Paul Turnbull, a history professor at the University of Queensland, in Australia, who has studied the use of indigenous remains. “But there is a trickle effect. When museums are contacted, they are now willing to talk.”

Read the full story, titled “Museums Confront the Skeletons in Their Closets,” here. Interestingly, the story appears on the New York Times website’s Art & Design section. Not likely where our readers would think to look since ICTMN has a Genealogy section to house issues such as this.