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Remains Of Indigenous People From UK Museum Finally Returned To Australia

A small but "significant" ceremony held in the United Kingdom on Tuesday marked the return of 37 South Australian ancestral remains to Australia.

Two representatives from the Narungga community in South Australia, Douglas Milera and Professor Peter Buckskin, attended the repatriation ceremony where they received the remains of one of the ancestors.

Australian ancestral remains and sacred objects were taken from Indigenous communities for more than 150 years since the arrival of the first fleet, and as late as the 1960s, National Museum of Australia’s repatriation expert, Dr Michael Pickering, told 10 daily.

The remains are later expected to be part of a reburial ceremony conducted by the Narungga community upon their return to Australia.

Douglas Milera and Professor Peter Buckskin received the remains of an ancestor. Image: AAP

Until then, they will be placed in the temporary care of the South Australian Museum, alongside seven of the other returned remains.

Minister for the Arts, Senator Mitch Fifield, said the government will also consult with the people of the Ngarrindjeri, Far West Coast, Kaurna and Flinders Ranges communities regarding the 29 other ancestral remains now returned from the Natural History Museum in the UK.

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The National Museum of Australia will temporarily care for those remains until the communities are ready "to return the old people to Country," Fifield said in a statement. 

He described the return was a "significant event for our country", adding the Government was committed to helping Indigenous community pursue the "unconditional return" of ancestral remains. 

Pickering said the museum's repatriation program had been running for over 25 years to help ensure remains make their way back to Indigenous communities.

Pickering said national and state museums help the repatriation process by researching where remains are located based on documentation, and consulting with communities about their safe return.

Image: AAP

He explained that such remains were taken to museums or private collections for a number of reasons, including as medical specimens or as examples of various races -- when this was still a "popular" way of thinking, and sometimes just as novelties.

"There was a thriving trade in remains," Pickering said.

"We have evidence of remains being transferred to other countries in return for examples from that country."

Close to 1500 ancestral remains have so far been returned through the Indigenous Repatriation program, according to Senator Fifield.

More than 1200 of those were from the United Kingdom.

Australian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, George Brandis also attended Tuesday's ceremony hosted by the Natural History Museum. Image: AAP

Pickering said many others still remain in the UK and other major European countries, including in Germany, Austria, Italy and France.

"There have been a number of returns and the process can vary in speed, it depends on the institution you are dealing with," he explained.

"Museums overseas will often either refuse to return remains or might be very resistant to do it in any rush."

Pickering said while he understands Indigenous communities would like to see the process of repatriation move faster, there has been a regular return of remains every year over the last two decades. 

He added it was positive to see that Indigenous communities were also now trusting Australian museums to take care of the returned remains while proper reburial procedures could be prepared.

Featured Image: AAP

Contact the author: vgerova@networkten.com.au