Researchers to make an inventory of human remains in the Belgian collections

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Collection of skulls from the medieval Coxyde abbey cemetery. (Photo: RBINS)
01/12/2020
Researchers to make an inventory of human remains in the Belgian collections
post by
Reinout Verbeke

A team of researchers coordinated by the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS) are carrying out a survey to make an inventory of human remains in Belgian museums, research institutes and private collections, which will include human remains from colonial times. The research team wants to discover the historical, scientific and ethical background of the human remains. The project will also investigate a legal framework for the repatriation of human remains.

Belgian museums, universities, public or private institutions and private individuals house human remains from all over the world and from various different time periods. Part of the public collections were collected during the colonial period, another part was collected during archaeological excavations and some were offered to museums by private collectors.

The research project HOME (Human Remains Origin(s) Multidisciplinary Evaluation) focuses on human remains collected outside of Belgium. The aim of the project is to gain an overview of the human remains housed in the various institutions and private collections and to gather as much information as possible on this subject.

The project aims to identify the individual people, the conditions under which their remains were collected and in some cases, will try to better understand past lifestyles, both from a cultural and biological point of view. Experts will also study the legal framework applicable to the restitution of human remains under Belgian and international law.

Repatriation

The repatriation of the South African Sawtche (Saartjie Baartman) in 2002 demonstrated how important restitution is for family members, stakeholders and states. She was exhibited as a human attraction in the United Kingdom and France in the 19th century and exhibited and then stored in the Museum of Natural History in Paris after her death.

"In recent decades, France, Germany and Switzerland amongst others have returned human remains at the request of family members or states," explains chief curator Patrick Semal (RBINS) who is coordinating the project. "Such cases have often led to regulations to make this restitution possible, especially for human remains that were in the public domain, such as Sawtche (Saartjie Baartman) or the heads of Maori in France".

In Belgium, there are currently no guidelines for the conservation and management of human remains, nor a legal framework for the return of human remains to family members, institutions or countries of origin. A large inventory supplemented with archive material should help to identify more individual people and better understand the circumstances in which they were acquired.

The legal experts and socio-anthropologists of the HOME project will analyse how both external and internal European countries return human remains and what legal procedures are currently being followed. By consulting with different stakeholders, the researchers wish to identify all opinions on restitution. "This knowledge will help us to make decisions about possible restitution," states Semal, who is coordinating the project. "Restituting human remains to family members, institutions or states can be complicated. Different parties might be interested in the same human remains or have different views on restitution".

The comparative study will assist in determining guidelines for the future management of collections of human remains in Belgium. "Up to now, our country has never repatriated human remains to another State. Belgium would thus benefit from a legal framework in order to be able to better deal with this type of request".

Case studies

The project will examine different case studies, in dialogue with all stakeholders, including family members and experts from the countries of origin. The possible restitution of human remains and the modus operandi will then be discussed.

One possible case study is the skull of Lusinga Iwa Ng'ombe. The skull of the beheaded chief Tabwa was brought back to Belgium by Emile Storms as spoils of war at the end of the 19th century. It is now kept at RBINS. In 2018, a descendant of Lusinga from Lubumbashi filed a demand for the repatriation of this skull with the Belgian king. This request was recently renewed by professors from the University of Lubumbashi (the Murumbi Group).

The partners in this project – RBINS, Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA), Royal Museums of Art and History (RMCA), National Institute for Criminalistics and Criminology (NICC), Université Saint-Louis (USL-B), Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB), Université de Montréal (UdeM), with FARO, the Flemish support centre for the cultural heritage sector – ask all institutions and private individuals who preserve human remains to contact them and complete the survey. The results of the survey will be made public, but individual data can remain private at the request of the respondent.

Thomas Dermine, Secretary of State for Science Policy, supports the HOME project which will scientifically support political decision-making on this very sensitive subject.

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