Sunday, August 4, 2013

An unfortunate loss to our nation

She's got a bit of cash. She's in love. It's a fairy tale romance and now he's asked her to marry him but there is one hitch.

"We have something called the Reviewing Committee for the Export of Works of Art," said the Culture Minister. (here.) "It assesses important works of art or artifacts under a set of criteria, and one is, 'would its loss to the nation be a misfortune?'"
Everyone is being very nice about the pretty lass who just wants a rock with some kind of cultural meaning to cement her engagement - but they are not about to let Jane Austen's ring out of the country. And no Clarkson/Austen ring jokes please. No. I'm serious.

This wouldn't normally even buzz my radar but I'm paying a bill somewhere and footage of the culture minister speaking comes on the screen behind the counter. I'm distracting myself with bill paying and television on a day when I should be writing-but-end-up-researching-something-sort-of-related-but-not ...

... like Patsy Adam Smith writing on the graveyard at Wybalenna, which was the failed island settlement for Pallawah exiles:
"And then there are the graves that are graves no more, roughly marked with stones, the places where the exiled Aborigines had been buried. The skeletons were disinterred a century ago and sold to museums in Britain and on the Continent."
Here I go from a mere anecdote of glass and gold to the bones of history, but bear with me, please.
'Disinterred.' What does that mean?

It means that the robbing of bodies and graves became so widespread and accepted as practice that Elders began to request that coffins were held open during ceremonies, so the family could see they were not full of sand bags. On Flinders and other Bass Strait islands, people buried their families quietly, often only marking the site with a single stone. They knew about that man with the spade, who stood to gain a year's wage from one Tasmanian body.

The amount of red tape and bullshit that Aboriginal groups have had to wade through to get the remains of their ancestors back to Country is beset with problems to this day: identification of human remains is one. Some of the Aboriginal bodies were smuggled out of the country labelled as kangaroo bones. (At least we all know that Clarkson's rock used to belong to Austen. If she dropped it down the toilet and a New York sewer worker found it ten years later in the belly of one of those crocodiles, we'd still know it was Jane Austen's ring.)

Then there is the resistance posed by certain British institutions to returning them at all:
"Efforts to repatriate the skulls have so far been spectacularly unsuccessful. A delegation of Ngarrindjeri elders sent to Oxford in 2008 was first told that the skulls were "objects", and as such were not covered by the museum's policy on human remains." (Here)

Although some museums such as the University of Edinburgh have immediately returned body parts upon request,  other museums prove a bit more tricky. "London's Natural History Museum, whose collection of Aboriginal remains includes a dried head, 124 skulls, and about 20 skeletons (five of which have names and addresses), has strenuously opposed repatriation." As of 2009, British institutions were still hanging on to 643 Aboriginal human remains; ten times more bones, hair, and pickled or dried fetuses, heads and organs than did the next most acquisitive country, Germany.

So I know that a literary national treasure, a piece of jewellery and a pop star makes for great nationalistic clicky copy ... but Mr Culture Minister! Consistency please!

For more info (here) is an interesting page on the repatriation of Aboriginal remains.


  1. Yes, I saw that story about Kelly Clarkson. Good on the Brits for telling her to fuck off. BUT it's pretty telling that Aboriginal people's ancestors aren't given at least the same respect - they should be given more, considering these are people's bones, not their bloody jewellery.

    1. It's interesting, giving a plain and unattractive ring some context in colonial history.

  2. I am (indirectly) ashamed to say that if us Brits gave back all the stuff which we have stolen from other cultures and countries over the last 150 years, our museums would be almost empty. Since finance plays a a massive role in the running of these museums, artefacts are now seen mainly as 'assets' by the govenors - and human remains are seen as artefacts.

    There is one museum here - my favourite one - which started as the private collection of the anthropologist, Pitts-Rivers, in Oxford, and when I visited it about 20 years ago, there were empty cabinets with notes in them explaining that the bones of the Aborigines which were once inside, had been repatriated by the Aboriginal representatives who came all the way to Oxford to collect them. Good old Pitts-Rivers.

    At the same time, there was an exhibition there by Wilfred Thessinger, drawing attention to the plight of the Marsh Arabs of Iraq, whose habitat was being drained by a Mr Saddam Hussein. A truly living museum, stuffed full of dead things.

    As far as I am concerned, they can dig up the bones of Jane Austen and send them to Australia. Life in Bath (and a small Hampshire village) would be so much more peaceful without her.

    1. Apparently, ironically, it was the Pitts-Rivers collection who refused to give some skulls back on the grounds that they were 'objects' not 'ancestors' remains'. It could have been resolved now, I'm not sure.

    2. Really? It must be a new regime in control, because I know they used to be sympathetic. I did hear that the Pitts-Rivers were trying to 'upgrade' the facility and turn it into some bloody awful 'interactive' type place, like every other boring museum.

    3. The link the the article is the one in (here) brackets under the Oxford para, Tom. I haven't followed it up anymore than that.
      But yeah! Boring interactive storyboard museums! I so agree. All of the great artefacts get boxed up, put into storage and we have storyboards to look at instead. Maybe it is a world wide phenomena. I hope I'm still alive when they realise how dull they are and change it all back again.

    4. Sorry, I can get no active link, but that has been the story for quite a few years now.

    5. No, sorry again - I have just found the link in a tasteful brown, and it does work after all. I am reading it now. Also sorry about the 's' on Pitt.

    6. This blog template won't highlight links which is why I put in brackets and other bells and whistles ...

  3. There is so much WTF here Sarah, parts of your post made me recoil and I don't do that easily. what a sorry sorry thing.

    1. Yes, this post starts off like of those cheesy horror movies: pretty girl ... da de dah ...heads in boxes. Sorry about that. I just thought that the disparity in national values was worth highlighting.