Avatar photo

Paul Madden

British Ambassador to Japan

Part of UK in Australia

20th March 2014

Behind the scenes at the museum

Natural History Museum, London

One of the issues that sometimes crosses my desk is the return of indigenous remains from western museums. So I went along to London’s Natural History Museum to call on Director Michael Dixon and his experts to find out more.

Natural History Museum, London
Natural History Museum, London

More than half NHM’s human collection consists of British remains. They enable scientific research which has helped to produce for example the excellent current exhibition “One million years of the human story”. But within Australia’s indigenous community there are different cultural traditions about ancestors. And of course we must respect those. So the NHM, like other major international museums, is currently involved in a process to respond to requests for the return of all such remains to where they belong in Australia.

Some might wonder why don’t they just get on and send them all back now. But, as I learned, it is not quite as simple as that. First, it’s necessary to be clear on exactly which remains we’re talking about. The NHM’s collection has been accumulated over the years from various sources, often without full documentation. One set of remains from Australia, thought to be indigenous, turned out to be an English woman, transported as a convict.

Second, for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, the sense of place is vitally important in locating ancestral spirits. And, as information on origins is often poor, it is not always immediately obvious where a particular set of remains comes from, and thus to which particular community it should be returned. So the identification process, using archive documentation and scientific methods, requires painstaking, time-consuming work by scientific experts. There are only a relatively small number of these experts in Britain and Australia and they are working closely together.

One particularly prominent case which has been raised by a number of Australians is that of indigenous leader Pemulwuy who died at the hands of the early settlers and whose skull was sent to Britain. What happened to it since then remains a mystery. The early letters and documents suggest that it may have been in the collection of the Royal College of Surgeons in the early 19th Century.

However, the RCS was badly damaged during the WWII Blitz: some of the remaining collection went to the NHM; some was returned to Australia. The NHM have no positive information that indicates that Pemulwuy’s skull is there but will be working further with the Australian government on all remains to develop archive and other evidence.

It is all a very complicated and sensitive subject. But overall I gained the impression of a highly professional and competent group of scientific experts, working conscientiously to ensure that all indigenous remains will be returned to their rightful place in Australia as soon as practically possible.

About Paul Madden

Paul Madden has been the British Ambassador to Japan from January 2017. He was Additional Director for Asia Pacific at the FCO in 2015.He was British High Commissioner to Australia…

Paul Madden has been the British Ambassador to Japan from January 2017.

He was Additional Director for Asia Pacific at the FCO in 2015.He was British High Commissioner to Australia until February 2015. Prior to this he was British High Commissioner in Singapore from 2007-2011.

A career diplomat, he was previously Managing Director at UK Trade and Investment (2004-2006), responsible for co-ordinating and
implementing international trade development strategies to support
companies across a wide range of business sectors.

As Assistant Director of Information at the Foreign and Commonwealth
Office (2003-2004) he was responsible for public diplomacy policy,
including managing the FCO funding of the BBC World Service, the British
Council and the Chevening Scholarships programme. He led the team
responsible for the award-winning UK pavilion at the Aichi Expo in Japan

He was Deputy High Commissioner in Singapore from 2000-2003 and has
also served in Washington (1996-2000) and Tokyo (1988-92). Between
1992-96 he worked on EU enlargement and Environmental issues at the FCO
in London.

Before joining FCO he worked at the Department of Trade and Industry
(1980-87) on a range of industrial sectors and trade policy, including
two years as a minister’s Private Secretary.

He has an MA in Economic Geography from Cambridge University, an MBA
from Durham University, studied Japanese at London University’s School
of Oriental and African Studies, and is a Fellow of the Royal
Geographical Society. His first book, Raffles: Lessons in Business
Leadership, was published in 2003.

Married to Sarah, with three children, he was born in 1959, in Devon.