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Stolen human remains stashed away in Aussie museum: 'Really distressing'

Almost 900 remains were taken without the consent of families and are hidden in a storage facility in the Queensland Museum.

It's an institution dedicated to the preservation of history — but it's been harbouring a dark past many Australians won't be aware of.

After decades of protests from victims' families, the Queensland Museum is making moves to set things right. Hidden within its depths, the facility holds almost 900 ancestral remains, the majority of which belong to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people — who were forcibly removed from graves without consent decades ago.

It's understood the bulk of the human remains were collected by the museum, in Brisbane, from the mid-1800s to the late 1960s for the "purpose of scientific study and display". But, despite the knowledge that taking the remains "would cause distress", and without consulting families, researchers removed them from fresh graves and even hospital beds anyway.

Queensland Museum in Brisbane.
Queensland Museum in Brisbane has secretly concealed the bodies of over 900 First Nations peoples since the 1800s. Source: Queensland State Library.

It's understood the remains consist of 833 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and 65 individuals from across the Pacific nations. In addition to the grim collection, the museum also holds 445 separate "secret and sacred objects" — which have also been set aside for repatriation, Nine News reported.

The museum acknowledges "this was all done without the permission or consent of the First Nations People and without regard to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Laws and Customs".

'People knew that taking these materials would cause distress and they did it anyway'

The shocking concealment is believed to have caused so much stress among Indigenous communities that many traditional owners who know what's concealed within the museum "will not even step foot into the building".

"It's really distressing," Historian Dr Gemmia Burden, who spent years trawling through the museum's archives, told Nine. "There was a school of thought that was built around the idea that races were different species, so there was a lot of research going into trying to prove that.

"There was a lot of interest in the study of anthropology and that was premised largely on the study of racial differences."

Ms Burden said scientists were fully aware of the repercussions of their actions.

"There was a lot of plundering of grave sites," she said. "There is evidence in the archives that people knew that taking these materials would cause distress, and they did it anyway."

Museum's statement

Since the 1990s, Queensland Museum is believed to have already returned roughly 200 ancestral remains to country, meaning the total amount stolen from graves exceeded well over 1000.

The Queensland government has allocated a total $4.5 million to ramp up repatriation efforts, which many have said have stalled in recent years.

"Since the 1970s Queensland Museum Network has continued to respond to calls from First Nations Aboriginal Peoples and Torres Strait Islanders to return the Remains and Cultural property of their Ancestors that had been stolen and removed," the museum's website states.

The storage facility in Queensland Museum in Brisbane where the remains of almost 900 bodies are kept..
Almost 900 bodies that date back as early as 1870s lay hidden in the Queensland Museum.

The museum said it was continuously working to return cultural remains and sacred objects under relevant laws.

A Queensland Museum spokeswoman said the "ancestral remains and secret and sacred material have officially been deaccessioned" from the main collection and "decision-making powers rest with First Nations communities who have been identified to date."

"Identified communities who requested their Ancestors and Objects be returned as soon as possible, received this material," she told Nine News.

"Other identified communities who were unable to accept, or declined to accept their Ancestors and Objects, at that time, entered into an "In Care by Request" agreement with QMN."

Communities who would like to access Ancestral Remains and Secret and Sacred Objects can contact the Senior Manager of Repatriation directly via email at

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszscuk promised in June to personally travel to the United Kingdom to retrieve items taken overseas by European collectors in the past century.

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