Friday, March 16, 2007

How to return human remains from Dutch museum

When the Amsterdam Museum for the Tropics, the Tropenmuseum, rediscovered a forgotten collection of hundreds of human skulls, bones and even organs stored in formaldehyde in glass jars, it lead to uneasy ethical questions. Many of the human remains are from indigenous inhabitants of Papua and Java, sent to the Netherlands between 1915 and 1965.

The bones were used by the Tropenmuseum for physical anthropological scientific reasearch, an area of study under intense scrutiny because of the infamous racial studies conducted by the German Nazi terror regime before and during World War Two which culimated in the Holocaust (the Nazis' systematic massacre of millions of European Jews).

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," Michel Walraven of Radio Netherlands noted. "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 ...?

"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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