German museum to return aboriginal remains to Australia

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A German museum said Friday it would return the ancestral remains of indigenous Aboriginals to Australia, as European institutions face growing calls for a critical re-evaluation of their collections.

The Ethnological Museum in Berlin said it would hand back the mummified bodies of two children as well as human bones in a wooden coffin as part of commitments over the handling of human remains.


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It follows the return last week of the mummified heads of two face-tattooed Maori men to New Zealand from the same museum.

The Aboriginal artifacts had been in the museum’s holdings since 1880, around the time when remains of Australia’s indigenous population were sometimes removed and taken to universities and collections in Australia and around the world.

The Berlin institution’s action follows a growing trend as museums in Europe and the United States are confronted with the ethical issues of keeping and displaying items that were plundered or removed without permission.

Calls to repatriate the Elgin Marbles from the British Museum to Greece and the Nefertiti Bust from Berlin’s Neues Museum to Egypt have grown in recent years.

In February, the Australian government requested the repatriation of the remains from Berlin.

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“The return of these ancestral remains is a solemn obligation. We are pleased to be able to take this step toward righting the historical injustice that brought them to Berlin,” said Lars-Christian Koch, the museum’s director, in a statement.

Since 2011, Australia has followed a policy that supports indigenous people in recovering and returning their ancestral remains from abroad.

In April 2019, Germany handed over the remains of an Aboriginal king that had been in a Munich museum since 1889.

The indigenous Aboriginal population, who have lived in Australia for 50,000 years, were dispossessed of their lands by the arrival of settlers two centuries ago.

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