Return of Hawaiian human remains

Following a request from the Hawaiian organisation Hui Malama and the State of Hawaii’s Office of Hawaiian Affairs, and in accordance with our policy on human remains, the Board of Governors of the Wellcome Trust agreed to repatriate an item of Hawaiian human remains held by the Science Museum on behalf of Wellcome Collection.

The item is a human skull, c1700 to c1900, which was purchased at auction by Henry Wellcome in 1924. The remains were not on display at either Wellcome Collection or the Science Museum, and were stored in a locked cupboard in a secure room in the Science Museum’s stores.

To help the Board of Governors reach this decision, we commissioned an independent investigation into the provenance of the item. We also sought independent expert opinions regarding the cultural, religious and spiritual significance of the remains to Native Hawaiian people, as well as the potential scientific, educational and historical value of the remains.

On the basis of the case presented by Hui Malama and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the expert opinions and independent analysis, we concluded that that the remains are in all likelihood Hawaiian and that there is good reason to believe that they were removed from Hawaii under conditions that would be considered highly unethical today.

Human remains are clearly of great significance for Native Hawaiian people, and the care of ancestral human remains stands at the centre of their culture, both historically and today. While there could be potential research value in the remains, this would appear to be limited when offset against the lack of precise provenance, the strength of feeling evidenced in the repatriation request, and the unethical nature of the acquisition of the remains.

As such, the deeply held cultural, religious and spiritual significance of the remains to Native Hawaiian people outweighs their potential scientific, historical and educational value in this particular case. The Board of Governors therefore agreed to the request for the repatriation of this item of human remains according to the following conditions:

  • The Science Museum made a complete record of the remains before repatriation was undertaken;
  • The remains be handled in an appropriate manner on their return to Hawaii, in accordance with the policies of the claiming organisations and with due consideration to the communities to whom the remains might belong;
  • That this does not set a precedent for any future claims, each of which will be considered on a case-by-case basis.