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Very little has been written which directly addresses the long-term storage of human remains other than as part of a collection in a museum, and nothing has been found which addresses the requirements for a purpose-built National Resting Place that aspires to meet Conservation ‘best practice’. Therefore, most of what is written below is based on selective use of the literature, personal experience in caring for the Ancestral Remains in the existing Keeping Place at the National Museum of Australia (NMA), and information gathered as personal communications from other Conservators with experience in designing and maintaining ‘best practice’ museum storage. [1]

The list of forms of remains likely to be deposited with a National Resting Place is derived from those currently held in the NMA Keeping Place and those encountered in the literature. The literature relating to requirements for bringing objects into collections is broadly applicable to the introduction of Ancestral Remains into a National Resting Place. Facilities for receipt (and possibly eventual dispatch), unpacking, labelling, pre-storage treatments including checking/mitigation/treatment of hazards and pests will all be required. While some of these activities are more Registration activities than Conservation activities, in large museums there is always some cross-over and in the case of a National Resting Place all of these activities are likely to be undertaken by a small group of people working in the same area and across all aspects of Ancestral Remains management. Therefore, in this paper these facilities are treated together as part of the Receipt Space for incoming Ancestral Remains.

A literature review of both Conservation and more general building information provides a clear picture of the type of facility and fit out which would provide appropriate care for the Ancestral Remains and at the same time be economically and environmentally sustainable into the future. The NMA currently operates such a facility and a graph of its performance against external and ambient warehouse temperature and relative humidity (RH) over a 6-week period shows clearly the benefits of this type of approach (see Figure 1 and detailed discussion of the graph in Section 3.2).

In the past decade, the Conservation community has reassessed some of its long-held beliefs about environmental requirements for storage. Much of this has been driven by the realisations, firstly, that the old values were rarely able to be met in practice and, secondly, that the anticipated reduction in ongoing funding combined with likely future policies relating to climate issues would require a more energy-efficient approach. A review of recent literature provides a well-researched approach which bases current requirements on the previous environmental history of objects and their current vulnerability to environmental conditions. This can be directly applied to the requirements of Ancestral Remains and will be the basis of the proposals put forward in this paper. Meeting these environmental requirements in a sustainable manner and designing the Storage Room (Store) are inextricably connected.

2.1 Glossary of terms

TermDefinition
Ancestral Remains The human remains of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people including the whole or part of the body, such as bones, tissue, hair and teeth; inclusive of those human remains that may have been modified such as decorated skulls, water carriers, cremation ash bundles or samples taken for research.
Individuation The keeping together, wherever possible, of Ancestral Remains as the remains of an individual. One individual may be represented by a complete skeleton or mummy or a single bone. ‘Individuating’ is the action of associating bones which belong to a single individual.
Keeping Place A secure storage space where Ancestral Remains can be held until their Community is ready to receive them or, in the case of unprovenanced remains, until they are placed in a permanent Resting Place.
Long-term care Long-term care in the context of caring for Ancestral Remains with an unknown provenance indicates permanent care within a National Resting Place.
Mortuary practice Mortuary practices include any culturally specified process (e.g. burial or cremation) the purpose of which is to progress towards the final deposition of human remains (British Museum 2013).
Provenance Provenance refers to the origin of Ancestral Remains. It may also refer to the record of possession of Ancestral Remains from the time there were removed from Country.
Resting Place This term covers the final site where Ancestral Remains are placed. It could be a site on Country if the Community has been identified but, in the context of this paper, it refers to a space designed to permanently house unprovenanced remains.

Footnotes

[1] Patrya Kay is currently working in the Repatriation section at the NMA as the Records Officer for the NMA Keeping Place. In that capacity she has developed the EMu collections management database to enable documentation and reporting on the Ancestral Remains and has also been responsible for the care of Ancestral Remains in the Store and the day-to-day management of the Keeping Place. Since graduating with an Applied Science Degree in the Conservation of Cultural Materials in 1990, she has worked at the NMA as the Preventive Conservator with special responsibility for the biological component of the collection transferred from the Australian Institute of Anatomy when it closed in 1984. She also worked for 4 years as the Business Administrator for the EMu Collections Management Database.

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