Why has Museums Victoria decided not to display human remains in Vikings: Beyond The Legend?

Indigenous laws hold that the deceased will not enjoy spiritual rest until they are returned to their ancestral home and given the last rites in accordance with tradition. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner quoted in Our Culture: Our Future - Report on Australian Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights, 1998

Aboriginal human remains and Museums in Australia

During the nineteenth century, museums across the globe actively collected human remains to study and display the bodies of Indigenous peoples.  These remains were mostly acquired without the permission of Indigenous peoples; bodies were stolen from graves, causing great and continuing distress to people and communities.  Australia was the source of bodies of Australian Indigenous peoples, then considered a ‘dying race’, whose remains were in high demand and distributed to institutions across the globe.

This difficult and painful history has resulted in many First Peoples individuals and communities experiencing great distress and sadness from the display of human remains.  This is due to the past practices of Museums but also because of a spiritual belief that Ancestors – whatever country or people they belong to – should be laid to rest and not on display.

First Peoples strategy at Museums Victoria

In 2017, Museums Victoria adopted a new transformational theme to:

Develop and implement a strategy that ensures Museums Victoria, in partnership with our First Peoples, inclusively sets First Peoples’ living cultures, histories and knowledge at the core of Museums Victoria’s practice. Museums Victoria Strategic Plan 2017-2025

This involves the Museum working with First Peoples communities in respectful and collaborative ways and shifting policies and practices.  As a Museum that has a difficult history in relation to the cultural heritage of Australian and global First Peoples, we are committed to addressing the wrongs of the past and moving towards a just future.

Museums Victoria has introduced a new First Peoples’ department which will manage the development of this important objective.

Display of human remains in Vikings, Beyond the Legend

Museums Victoria consulted with Elders and ACHAC (Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Advisory Committee) about the display of human remains in the current Vikings, Beyond the Legend exhibition and some members expressed distress at the idea of human remains going on display.  Aboriginal people and communities have worked very hard to advocate for better practices in the storage, display and return of human remains and our Elders and ACHAC believe that this current display could undermine many hard-won, positive steps over recent years.

Museums Victoria has previously displayed and currently displays human remains in other sections of the Museum.  These displays are currently under review as we develop policies that respect the living cultures and beliefs of our First Peoples.

Museums Victoria are currently in conversations about a revised written policy as we move into a new way of thinking within museum cultures.

For more Information

To learn more about the practice of ‘body snatching’ and the theft of Aboriginal human remains:

To learn more about what museums are doing to repatriate human remains:

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