A symposium to share information between institutions (both local and international) and Indigenous community members was recently hosted at Iziko on 13 and 14 February 2017.The objectives of the symposium were twofold: to discuss and further develop policies and guidelines governing such collections at various institutions throughout southern Africa, and to identify definitive conclusions for the way forward. One of the main components of the symposium was active participation by delegates representing indigenous communities, including Kei!Korana, Nguni and Khoesan (Bushman) peoples.
Discussions regarding the repatriation of unethically sourced human remains acquired in the 1850s–1930s in the name of racially-motivated pseudo-science have been taking place for years in southern African countries. The workshop encouraged cross-institutional collaboration and conversation about repatriation, ethical handling practices, and human remains collection management strategies. The discussions also highlighted both the unique challenges and positive results that repatriation claims can produce within museums. This was an opportunity for members of affected communities to present their concerns and needs to museum professionals and academics, and for institutions and government departments to respond in turn.
Iziko was the first South African museum to have a formal policy on the dignified care and return of human remains. This policy governs, among other things, the acquisition, documentation, storage, research and return of human remains in its collections. Former Iziko Council member, Prof. Ciraj Rassool and Iziko staff have worked closely with the Department of Arts and Culture, making recommendations and advising on the process of repatriation of human remains. Iziko was thus a strategic contributor in the process of developing national policy in this regard.
“This is a project of national and international significance. The conversation addressing the legacy of unethically collected human remains and the attempt to restore the humanity of these people, and the dignity of their descendants, marks the beginning of a southern African determination to deal with its unhappy colonial past. There is an urgent need for concrete steps to be taken as museums begin the complex process of renewal and self-reflexive critique,” says Rooksana Omar, Iziko CEO and President of CAM.
This symposium was the first of what Iziko and CAM, and their international partners, hope will be many constructive conversations surrounding the repatriation of ancestors and the role that scientific research plays in these processes.