Exhibiting human remains

The trade in antiquities, including human remains was commonplace in the 19th century. Public fascination with mummies has remained steadfast, but some museums in the 21st century are attempting to redress the balance, to look at the history of acquisition of these remains and to begin a dialogue with their communities of origin. In a similar way , many Indigenous remains in museums were acquired unethically. The Australian Museum supports the repatriation of these remains to their community of origin.

It would hardly be respectable, on one's return from Egypt, to present oneself in Europe without a mummy in one hand and a crocodile in the other. French visitor to the court of the Egyptian viceroy, 1833.

The trade in antiquities, including human remains was commonplace in the 19th century. Public mummy 'unwrappings' were hugely popular in Britain and Europe during this time. Many travellers to Egypt left with souvenirs from plundered tombs. Public fascination with mummies has remained steadfast, but some museums in the 21st century are attempting to redress the balance, to look at the history of acquisition of these remains and to begin a dialogue with their communities of origin.

Exhibition: Two perfect specimens of the Ancient Peruvians are now on view at the Royal Hotel. These are without doubt the greatest curiosities ever brought to Australia, and with their various implements, gourds, provisions, are deserving the attention of all. Tickets of admission... Sydney Morning Herald, 3 November, 1851

Indigenous remains

Skeletons of Aborigines are much wanted ... authentic skulls may be obtained from the graves of the natives of each tribe. Hints for the preservation of specimens of natural history, published by the Australian Museum in 1887

Many Indigenous remains in museums were acquired unethically. The Australian Museum supports the repatriation of these remains to their community of origin. This repatriation process began in 1991 and continues today through the 'Return of Indigenous Cultural Property' program, a three-year program funded jointly by the federal and state governments.

Indigenous laws hold that the deceased will not enjoy spiritual rest until they are returned to their ancestral home and given the last rites in accordance with tradition. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner as quoted in Our Culture: Our Future - Report on Australian Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights, 1998


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Tags Death Online, disposing of the dead, disposal of the body, preservation, mummy, mummies, indigenous remains, repatriation,