Namibian human remains identified in South African museums

03 Apr 2018 06:30am
WINDHOEK, 03 APR (NAMPA) – About 160 human remains that were unethically collected, the majority from Namibia, have reportedly been identified in the Iziko Museums of South Africa.
This revelation came to the fore during a workshop recently held in Windhoek aimed at providing an opportunity to start a conversation in Southern Africa about the best way to develop guidelines regarding human remains in museums.
According to a media release availed by the Museum Association of Namibia to Nampa on Thursday, the workshop participants argued that it was important that people who had been collected as specimens were “rehumanised” so that their bodies are treated with dignity and respect.
The collection, according to the statement, reflects a particular focus on obtaining bodies from the San and Nama communities as in the late 19th and early 20th century it was believed that these communities would become extinct.
The collection however also includes a significant number of human remains from northern Namibia that were collected after Ondjala yekomba (the famine) of 1914-1916.
The primary concern of the workshop participants who were museum workers, academics and community activists, was that bodies were often obtained in an unethical way with bodies removed from recent graves or even before they were buried without the consent of their family.
Deputy Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Education, Arts and Culture, Veno Kauaria, who opened the workshop officially set the tone for discussions by raising questions such as how it would be decided whether the human remains in question were obtained ethically or not.
“How do we find out whose human remains are in our museums, how old they are and how they got there? What should be the time period after which human remains can be legitimately excavated for research purposes; 150 years, 200 or 1 000 years? When, if ever, might it be justified to display human remains in our museums?” Kauaria wanted to know.
She also wanted to know what will be done when there is insufficient information to trace the descendants.
Secretary-General of the African Council of Museums, Dr Rudo Sithole, who was the keynote speaker, said it would be useful if museums in Africa could collaborate to develop appropriate guidelines to deal with the issue of human remains in museums.
European museums are also reviewing their collections and have already started returning human remains.
The most prominent recent examples have been the return of skulls of the Nama and Herero from German museums to Namibia in 2011 and 2014.
In 2011 German scientists handed a delegation from Namibia the skulls of 20 people who died in a colonial concentration camp more than 100 years ago whose heads were seized for a research project that aimed to prove white supremacy.
The skulls were part of the anatomical collection of Berlin's university hospital, the Charité, and their return has cast a spotlight on a dark chapter of Germany's past.
These skulls were from four women, 15 men and one boy, aged three or four.
In 2014, another 35 skulls and two skeletons of Namibian origin were returned to Namibia from Berlin and Freiburg, Germany in a second repatriation exercise.
Namibia has been trying to get the remains repatriated since 2008 when a television documentary revealed their existence in the hospital's vaults.
The workshop was funded by the Commonwealth Association of Museums and the International Council of Museums.