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Apologies from the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and the Royal Society over previous museum practices are of national importance, but the debate over the use of Indigenous cultural objects is ongoing. By James Boyce.

Tasmania apologises for historic museum practices

The public entrance of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery is through a rear courtyard. This walled corner was where British invaders pitched their tents in 1804 and to this day, TMAG’s site overlooking Hobart’s Constitution Dock is a centre of settlement.

The museum’s courtyard was a fitting location for the chair of TMAG to deliver an apology to the Tasmanian Aboriginal people. Acknowledging “previous museum practices that have caused profound suffering for Aboriginal people”, Brett Torossi’s speech was one of the more expansive institutional apologies yet made in Australia. Given the central role the British invasion of lutruwita (Tasmania) played in the conquest of the Australian continent, this truth-telling was of national importance.

Hobart was the second site of the British settlement in Australia, and by 1830, a third of the European population of the continent lived on the southern isle. At this time, the colonial government was also concluding the best documented public war against Aboriginal people in Australia. By the mid-1830s, colonial authorities celebrated the banishment of what they believed to be the last surviving Aboriginal people to exile, in the Bass Strait islands.

Commensurate with the rapid decimation of the Tasmanian Aboriginal population was an increasing interest in their remains. Exporting human bones, along with varieties of plants and animals, was a precedent established in Sydney. A number of officers sent natural history samples to England, seeking the favour and patronage of the few establishment figures interested in the distant penal colony, most notably Joseph Banks. Tasmania, in this sense, was always part of a larger imperial story.

However, as the century progressed, an intense curiosity came to surround Tasmanian Aboriginal bones. Racial theory powered a belief that the Tasmanian Aboriginal people were a distinct race. And so, as the people held in offshore detention died from despair and disease, the British believed they were witnessing the first documented human extinction.

This coincided with the founding of the first Royal Society outside of Britain, in Hobart in 1843. It was an Enlightenment project, focused on the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge. But from the start, the Tasmanian body was a partnership with the state, initiated by a colonial governor and funded through a yearly grant and running what was effectively a public garden and museum. The overlap with the Tasmanian political establishment was so close that by 1869, nine of the 14 members of the Tasmanian Legislative Council were life members of the Royal Society. The society’s museum was vested to the government in 1885 but ties remained. To this day the society’s meeting room is within the TMAG complex, and its president delivered a public apology to Aboriginal people at the same courtyard ceremony last month.

The institutional infrastructure of Hobart’s Royal Society and museum, sourced in the power of empire, the wealth of appropriated pastures, and the close personal ties of a small ruling elite, facilitated the collection and export of Tasmanian Aboriginal bones. By 1850, there were 19 anatomical museums in Britain and most had Tasmanian ancestral remains. At that time, the new field of phrenology, which believed skull size and shape were indicators of differential intelligence, personality and even morality, further increased demand.

As evolutionary theory shaped scientific discourse in the later 19th century, Tasmanian bones came to be seen as a critical link in the evolution of mankind. Many private collectors competed to secure the scarce remains of what was widely depicted as the most primitive race on Earth.

Richard Berry, professor of anatomy at the University of Melbourne, wrote studies of racial typologies that were informed by his collection of the remains of at least 12 Tasmanian Aboriginals. This was part of a university collection that eventually comprised about 500 skulls and body parts from more than 800 people.

The demand for bones led to the graveyard at the abandoned Aboriginal station on Flinders Island being so regularly plundered for skeletons that Robert Gardiner, the Launceston businessman who secured the island’s lease in the 1870s, became known as “Resurrection Bob”. As the last residents of Oyster Cove Aboriginal Station died, bodies were routinely removed and either kept in the Hobart museum or sent to favoured friends in Britain.

By the time William Lanne, the so-called last man, died in 1869, public concern about these practices had become so serious that the government committed to Lanne’s body being respectfully buried. However, Lanne’s skull was stolen from the hospital on the initiative of the prominent doctor William Crowther, who later became Tasmania’s premier. There was a media backlash – Crowther was temporarily dismissed from his government post – with The Mercury reflecting that “the common people have a better appreciation of decency and propriety than such of the so called upper classes of me of education”.

As Truganini, then depicted as the last Tasmanian, approached death in the mid-1870s, she was so terrified of being similarly mutilated that she pleaded with her local vicar to promise her body would be confined to the depths of the D’Entrecasteaux Channel. Sensitivity to public opinion led to the government secretly burying Truganini behind the walls of the former women’s gaol at midnight on the day before the advertised funeral. More than a century later it would be discovered that security was still breached when in 2002, the Royal College of Surgeons in London discovered that their collection held fragments of the skin and hair of Truganini.

This public concern points to a paradox. Conservative commentators in Australia’s history wars routinely use the different “values” of the past as an excuse for moral outrages. But there has always been cross-cultural ethical agreement that respect is owed to the bodies of the dead. Until the 1830s, the punishment for murder in Britain was not just to be hanged but dissected. Public dread of dissection led to new laws to replace this limited supply of bodies with those of paupers who died in workhouses and hospitals without a family who could pay for a funeral.

The men who stole Aboriginal bodies justified their actions in the name of science, but they shared the horror of dissection when it came to the question of their own remains and those of friends and loved ones. The mutilation of the powerless poor might be justified as an unfortunate necessity in the name of science, but the righteousness with which gentlemen scientists gathered Indigenous remains was possible only because Aboriginal people were seen to be the lowest level of human – far below civilised and ethical European man who represented the evolutionary apex. The casual racism of ordinary Britons made for indifference, apathy and profit-seeking wherever a quid could be made, but the mutilation of Aboriginal bodies was a crime of the educated and enlightened.

Two years after her death, the skeleton of Truganini was exhumed and moved to the Tasmanian Museum. As racist social Darwinist thought strengthened its grip on the Western mind, the skeleton was put on public display in 1904 and remained there for more than four decades. It was relocated to the basement after Truganini’s vicar’s son lobbied to have her funeral wishes implemented. In 1970, a new and ultimately successful campaign led by Aboriginal people began, which affected far beyond Tasmania. Truganini’s ashes were scattered in the channel on the centenary of her death in 1976.

The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre has been pursuing the return of ancestral remains in Australia and overseas ever since. In 1982, the TAC filed charges against the director and chair of TMAG seeking the return of those held in the Crowther Collection. In 1984, legislation ensured that all remains held by a state institution were handed to designated elders of the Aboriginal community, but as with ancestral remains across the continent, there is still much work to do.

Despite decades of repatriations supported by Commonwealth and state governments, the remains of about 2000 Indigenous Australians are believed to be overseas still. Many thousands more are stored in the warehouses of Australian museums – unable to be returned to Country because their provenance is unknown or there is no community able to receive them. These people await a national resting place where they can be respected and remembered. A detailed proposal from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies for such a memorial is now with Minister Ken Wyatt.   

The apology from TMAG and the Royal Society was not solely about the treatment of the dead. When the intrepid trekker E. T. Emmett found his way into the Tasmanian Museum in the late 1930s, he found the “most striking exhibit, financed by a bequest from the recently retired caretaker of the Museum [and secretary of the Royal Society] … a small group of aboriginal figures grouped round a campfire … As I stood before the group of well-executed dummies, I visualized the passing of the race as a tale that is told.” This display remained in place until late 2005.

As the renowned Tasmanian Aboriginal artist Julie Gough observed, the message of the diorama was clear: “They are not here now.” The conventional presentation of objects made by Aboriginal people in TMAG and museums around the world reinforced this vanishing – becoming for Gough desolate and “poignant markers of a disappeared people … mute markers of abuse and absence”.    

While a new exhibit celebrating the survival and renaissance of Aboriginal culture opened in 2007, and there are now two permanent exhibitions curated by Aboriginal people, the issue of the ownership and use of objects is ongoing. The decolonisation of museums is being widely discussed, and to some extent attempted in Europe and Australia. But few institutions could say they have fully honoured article 11 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which urges states to restore “cultural, intellectual, religious and spiritual property” taken without “free, prior and informed consent or in violation of their laws, traditions and customs”.

TMAG’s apology specifically committed “to work to share access to First Peoples materials … with communities across Australia and overseas, and support repatriation when return is requested”.

A concrete expression of this commitment is the imminent return to Country of the 14,000-year-old Preminghana petroglyphs that in 1962 TMAG had cut out from remote rocks in north-west Tasmania. All Tasmanians and visitors will soon be able to see these extraordinary rock carvings on Aboriginal land. The intention is for, as the apology puts it, “a more honest way of being with the past and a new sense of responsibility and belonging to this beautiful island for all who call it home”.

Some understandably see apologies to Indigenous people as a distraction – another tool of the coloniser to keep the political focus away from substantive change. Defenders point to the importance of facing up to the past to build a different future. The commitments made by TMAG provide hope, but the value of the apology can be measured only with time.

After centuries of plunder and pain, the complexity involved in institutional apologies and managing museum collections is inevitably difficult. The one section of TMAG’s courtyard statement that reads strangely is that “today we find the courage to take responsibility for the past”. Courage is a word best associated not with those who convey an apology but with the people who after centuries of trauma agree to receive it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 13, 2021 as "Tasmanian apology".

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James Boyce is a Hobart-based historian and former social policy consultant.