'Dehumanisation of indigenous people': Students react to UoA's Collection of human remains
Revelation of remains has sparked conversation about UoA's colonial legacy
By Josh Pizzuto-Pomaco
In the weeks since The Gaudie's reporting uncovered UoA’s collection of over 200 human remains taken from non-European groups during the colonial period, students have reacted in a variety of ways.
According to a survey conducted by The Gaudie, nearly 70% of students who responded were unaware of the existence of the University’s collection prior to our reporting.
Furthermore, the poll found that students were divided on several issues relating to the collection. 51% of students said they believe it is unethical for museums to house human remains, while 56% of students said the University should apologise for their possession of the remains.
One student noted: ‘I think an apology would only be meaningful if it accompanied returning these remains to the communities they were taken from. At the end of the day, no one currently in charge of these collections was involved in violently stealing them, so we'd be apologising for having kept, objectified, and used them. And there's no point in apologising for something and then continuing to do it.’
However, other students were less supportive of the University’s repatriation efforts which included the agreed repatriation of a Tasmanian man's skull in 2020, with comments including: ‘Finders keepers, losers weepers’ and ‘Long time ago get over it.’
Some students also questioned if the University had been transparent about the extent of the collection, with one commenting: ‘I feel that the university has been very secretive about this whole process. They have not done much to make students aware of the situation and they have downplayed its severity while trying to keep a good name. For a uni that prides itself on its seeking of the truth, the University of Aberdeen is doing a poor job of being truthful itself.
University Museums and Special Collections staff have consistently maintained that discussions of the repatriation of human remains is extremely sensitive and as such, have refrained from commenting publicly on the actions they have taken thus far.
The University’s website acknowledges their possession of the remains, but does not go into further detail. It states: 'The collections also include human remains which were collected to demonstrate racial diversity in the teaching of anatomy, and others that were acquired alongside ethnographic collections. Some have now been returned to descendent communities and other discussions are under way to address this legacy.’
As previously reported, UoA has also digitised its museum catalogue, which includes descriptions of the human remains. However, the database does not provide specific data on how many remains are held by the University.
In a statement, the UoA Black and Asian Minority Ethnic (BAME) student forum strongly criticised the University's collection, arguing that the continued possession of the remains perpetuates 'colonial and racist ideologies.'
They stated, '... The mere commercialisation and exploitation of human remains benefits individuals who hold racist beliefs similar to those of the 18th century colonialists. This practice has gravely undermined the integrity of the Aboriginal culture; established here is a hierarchy where the academic endeavours of the Western world warrants the dehumanisation of the indigenous people. The BAME Forum does not condone these beliefs and actions, and we hope the university is working towards making the appropriate repatriation of these remains with immediate effect.’
The AUSA Sabbatical team also responded to the collection, stating: 'We should look past what happens beyond apologising. Apologies of colonisation is an easy out, as we have witnessed with many European states concerned of their imperial history. The question should investigate what active practice UoA Museum Collections should adopt, to disrupt the system [in] which the collection was acquired in the first place. As a community we need to be conscious of what exactly we’re demanding the university to do.’
They continued, saying: ‘The university has begun “intellectual decolonizing” in the form of decolonizing the curriculum, which begs for the next step of material decolonizing – dismantling power structures and reallocation of resources to restructure hierarchies. What could the role of the human remains collection be in this process…'