Human Remains Management in Southern Africa

Summary of the Project

In 2017 ICME, ICOM Botswana, Namibia and South Africa began work on an ICOM funded project entitled ‘Human Remains Management in Southern Africa’. The Commonwealth Association of Museums (CAM) led this project in collaboration with Iziko Museums of South Africa and ICME member Dr Jeremy Silvester was our representative and point of contact. We are very pleased to congratulate CAM on leading a successful bid for 2018 ICOM special project funds, with ICME as a partner on this important work.

The ultimate goal is to develop policy and guidelines for human remains management and repatriation in Southern Africa in collaboration with museums, universities, governments, and indigenous community members. The project incorporates collections-based research, discussion with regional and international experts, community consultations with San, Nama and Ndonga source communities, a travelling exhibition, and virtual platform development.

In colonial times many human remains were collected for ‘research’ purposes to support prevalent theories of white supremacy. In the early twentieth century South African Museums collected human remains particularly from the San and Nama communities. Museums that have inherited remains acquired unethically, or indeed illegally, need to address past institutional wrongs, develop relationships with source communities, correct this situation, and support reconciliation.

In other parts of the world, extensive work has been done to heal the wounds that such collections have caused to source communities, yet this issue has not been properly addressed in Southern Africa. Discussions with community members are essential to developing policy and guidelines for future practice through participatory governance. The international network of ICOM is ideally structured to facilitate dialogue between South African museums and communities in neighbouring countries.

This project was initiated by the Commonwealth Association of Museums (CAM) in collaboration with Iziko Museums of South Africa, the Museums Association of Namibia and the National Museum and Monuments of Botswana. In 2017 they were joined by ICME, ICOM Botswana, Namibia and South Africa.

Phase I: Ended in March 2017:

  • CAM intern and South African Department of Arts and Culture intern worked at Iziko Museums for six months and produced a report listing human remains from Botswana and Namibia;
  • Iziko Museums hosted the Human Remains Management and Repatriation Workshop, February 13-14, 2017;
  • Athabasca University intern wrote a report on Indigenous Human Remains Management in Museum Collections and Issues of Repatriation

Phase II: April 2017-December 2018

  • Human Remains Management panel at the CAM Heritage and Nation Building Symposium, Calgary (June 2017)
  • CAM intern at the Museums Association of Namibia (Oct 2017-March 2018)
  • Consultation within the San and Ndonga communities in Namibia
  • Continued research at Iziko Museums re: Namibian remains
  •  Development of a travelling exhibit and virtual platform
  • Additional research in German language court records in Windhoek
  • Placement of a CAM intern at National Museum and Monuments of Botswana (Oct 2018-March 2019 – continuing into Phase III 2019


Project Report: Report on the Human Remains Management and Repatriation Workshop, 13th-14th February, 2017