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British Museum returns aboriginal ashes to Tasmania

The British Museum in London says it will repatriate two bundles of aboriginal remains back to Australia after they were taken in 1838 from sick and dying aborigines in Tasmania. The bundles were used as talismans against sickness.

The British Museum says it will repatriate two bundles of aboriginal human remains back to Australia after they were taken more than 160 years ago.

"It will be a very joyous occasion when we've got two stolen remains back to Tasmania,” said Trudy Maluga of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre. "These two bundles are the only two known to exist today so it's very special to us."

Maluga said aboriginal representatives will travel to Britain soon to arrange for the return of the remains.  She wasn't sure exactly when that would be.

She declared the move a “historic victory” after battling for 20 years to get the ashes back.  She said new laws passed last year in Britain allowed public museums to return ancestral remains.

"We do know that one other public museum over in Britain has Tasmanian remains and so we've started the process to try and get those remains back to our country,” noted Maluga.

She said another eight British institutions, including the British Natural History Museum, have aboriginal items that interest her centre.

Museum officials said the bundles were taken from Australia in 1838 by George Augustus Robinson, the chief protector of aborigines in the Port Phillip district of Tasmania.

The ashes, wrapped in animal skin, had been used as talismans to ward off sickness.

“Robinson took these from sick aborigines when they were close to death. They were effectively stolen,” Maluga told The Age newspaper in Australia.

Maluga said the bundles were to be buried with their owners and so, by taking the items, Robinson interrupted the process of the two people being laid to rest.

The London museum, which acquired the remains in 1882 from the Royal College of Surgeons, said on Friday that the aborigines’ claim “outweighed any other public benefit.”

“The museum looks forward to continuing to work with indigenous Australian communities in furthering the worldwide public understanding of Australian aboriginal culture, both past and present,” said Helena Kennedy, a British Museum trustee.

The museum is creating an Australian and Pacific Gallery slated to open in 2008.