Hundreds of the Pacific’s ancestral remains are kept in Australian institutions. Many have no plans to return them

Hundreds of the Pacific’s ancestral remains are kept in Australian institutions. Many have no plans to return them
  • PublishedApril 26, 2024

On a remote coast in Papua New Guinea, Nickolay Miklouho-Maclay Jr ended a long journey from Russia to tie up a 150-year-old loose end.

His ancestor, the famous Russian explorer and anthropologist Nickolai Miklouho-Maclay, first came to Rai Coast in Madang province generations ago.

He lived among the villagers to study their way of life and is remembered fondly there to this day. 

In 1877, the explorer left Rai Coast with 16 human skulls — taken with consent, according to his records.

A man in a white polo shirt, Nicholay Miklouho-Maclay Jr, stands next to a monument and waves.
Nickolay Miklouho-Maclay Jr stands next to a monument for his ancestor on the Rai Coast.(Supplied)

Those skulls — and many others collected by the Russian explorer — ended up at the University of Sydney in 1889 following his death.

Mr Miklouho-Maclay Jr journeyed to PNG last month to tell the elders of Gorendu and Bongu villages where their ancestors’ remains are today.

The villagers recognised the name of one ancestor — Panake, a “chief warrior”.

Villagers sit down and look at a catalogue of ancestors from Rai Coast whose remains are in the University of Sydney.
Villagers inspect a catalogue of ancestral remains from Rai Coast held in the University of Sydney.(Supplied)

Following a heated discussion between the village elders, they reached a resolution.

“We feel very bad when we heard our ancestors’ skulls [are] in Sydney in the museum,” elder Stabie Igu Gasom said.

“I need my ancestor Panake to be returned to his land for proper burial.”

Human remains were taken from Pacific Islands during a dark chapter of colonial history, when institutions collected them for racist pseudo-scientific purposes.

Around the world, Western institutions have been trying to right the wrongs of the past by returning human remains to their rightful owners.

Over the last 30 years Australian museums have returned more than 2,700 ancestors and 2,200 sacred objects to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, according to government figures.

But for the remains of Pacific Islanders in Australian institutions, it’s a different story.

An investigation by The Pacific has found nearly 1,500 Pacific ancestors are held in 13 institutions across the country.

For the most part, Australia’s institutions are not repatriating remains.

One museum said due to historical record keeping and collecting practices from the mid to late 1800s to early 1900s, repatriation was incredibly difficult.

The 16 skulls that Miklouho-Maclay Sr collected on Rai Coast, along with hundreds of other Pacific Islander remains, are stored in the Chau Chak Wing Museum and the JL Shellshear Museum at the University of Sydney’s Camperdown campus.

The university said it would consider any requests for repatriation of human remains and it is in the early stages of developing a repatriation project, “which will include a focus on the Pacific”.

A sandstone neogothic building under a blue sky with white clouds.
The University of Sydney holds hundreds of Pacific Islander remains in museums at its Camperdown campus.(ABC News: Hugo Hodge)

“Issues around the care and return of ancestral remains and objects can be complex, often involving differing ideas about repatriation and the most appropriate way to care for such remains into the future, including those that for a range of reasons aren’t able to be immediately returned,” a University of Sydney spokesperson said.

Following the ABC’s enquiries, the University of Sydney said it had received a remains repatriation request from Rai Coast.

“We have commenced discussions with all involved on how to best proceed with this.”

Nickolay Miklouho-Maclay
Russian anthropologist and explorer Nickolai Miklouho-Maclay.(ABC News: Cordelia Brown / Wikipedia)

In a twist of fate, Miklouho-Maclay Sr’s skull was exhumed after his death, and is now in the St Petersburg Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography.

Like the elders on Rai Coast, Mr Miklouho-Maclay Jr wants his ancestor’s remains buried.

“I believe that his skull has served the good of science and humanity, and it is time to put it in the ground to bury it,” he said.

The long journey home

Only four of the Australian institutions The Pacific contacted are acting on requests to return remains to Pacific Island nations.

Tarisi Vunidilo, a Fijian archaeologist who works with museums to repatriate ancestors to the Pacific, said Pacific Islanders often don’t know their ancestors are in museums.

“I would like to encourage many museums in Australia to share more of this information to benefit our island neighbours,” Dr Vunidilo said.

A woman in a colourful dress shows the contents of a box to a man and a woman.
Tarisi Vunidilo (left) is an advocate for the repatriation of ancestral remains to the Pacific.(Supplied: University of Göttingen)

She said many institutions don’t understand the importance of ancestral remains to descendants.

“They say, ‘you didn’t even know these people’. Of course it is true to an extent, but they are part of us,” she said.

“That kind of connection through spirituality, through our DNA, through our names, through our totems, it’s something that continues forever.

“I think it comes back to what purpose will those human remains do for those institutions today.

“If there is no use maybe scientifically, or educationally, for it to be taking space in the museum storage, then the right decision is for them to go back home.”

Staff in Australia’s historic institutions report a number of barriers to Pacific repatriations including a lack of regional networks, few staff with specialist Pacific knowledge, under-resourced repatriation teams and inadequate funding.

Securing government funding for Pacific repatriations is a challenge, and could explain why so few remains are repatriated there.

A spokesperson for the Department of the Arts said the Australian government only provides funding for the return of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander remains.

“Australian institutions holding foreign ancestors are responsible for their care and decisions about their repatriation,” they said.

There is no national policy on Pacific repatriations and no promise of government funding is in sight.

The Pacific approached institutions to find out what action they’re taking to repatriate remains to the region:

South Australian Museum

“Given the scale of the task and available resources, the museum has prioritised working with First Nations communities … While the museum has made great inroads in recent years, there remains a long road ahead.”

Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

“Due to historical record keeping and collecting practices from the mid to late 1800s to early 1900s, as well as the time frames involved, this [repatriation] is incredibly difficult and, in some cases, might prove impossible.”

Queensland Museum

“Ongoing funding for repatriation is not the only challenge. Repatriation is an emotional, community-led process that requires extensive consultation and delicate negotiation over many years. In some instances, communities may … not have the capacity or infrastructure to receive and care for ancestral remains and secret sacred items themselves.”

One museum worker said a coordinated federal government approach and funding was needed to ramp up Pacific repatriations.

‘I hope they are now at peace’

Museums overseas have started returning foreign ancestral remains to Pacific communities and elsewhere.

In Germany, the University of Göttingen and the State Ethnographic Collections of Saxony are returning eight ancestral remains to Palau — the university’s third repatriation to the Pacific in the last few years.

At a ceremony to hand over the remains in March, both German institutions apologised for taking them.

It was something that surprised the representative of the Pulo Anna council in Palau, Ribka Kintaro, who performed a chant at the event.

Four of her ancestors were taken.

“When I actually stood up and did the whole chant, I got so emotional,” she said.

“I hope that at least they are now at peace and that we could bring them back home.”

The remains are expected to return home next month, and the Palau government plans to erect a memorial at their burial site.

Professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Göttingen, Regina Bedix, said there is a big push in Germany to deal with its colonial past.

A woman wearing black stands and speak at a lectern in front of a crowd.
Ribka Kintaro concludes the ceremony for the hand over of Palau ancestral remains with a chant. (Supplied: University of Göttingen)

“There’s really a big sea change, a big [move to] talk with concerned communities, being able to exchange information, trying to work together to make it possible to restitute if the interest is there,” she said.

A chance to connect

Dr Vunidilo has called for the Australian government to help return Pacific remains with “the same energy” it gives to repatriating Aboriginal ancestral remains back to country from overseas.

“Our neighbouring countries of Australia and New Zealand can learn from European countries too, like Germany and France as they are opening up their vaults to return ancestral remains to where they truly belong,” she said.

Dr Vunidilo said when institutions repatriate ancestral remains, they can gain something more valuable to them in the long-term.

“Repatriations are an opportunity to build relationships with Pacific Island museums, who could offer to collaborate and exchange Indigenous knowledge in return,” she said.

“I always look at it as opportunities for capacity building, to encourage a lot of our younger Indigenous museum researchers to come into this space, because I know a lot of [Australian] museums [are] often asking for help, in terms of knowledge or cultural protocols.


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