THEY are two simple but powerful objects, heavily freighted with significance, both political and historical.

Two skulls, currently resting in the high-security archives of Scotland's National Museum are among the last remains of the Beothuk people, the indigenous people of Newfoundland in Canada, and they have been part of the extensive collections of the National Museums of Scotland for more than 150 years.

After a three year campaign by indigenous groups, and a formal request for repatriation from the government of Canada, it is understood the NMS is on the "cusp" of finally deciding what to do with the human remains.

The future of the remains, taken from their graves in the 1820s, is shortly to be decided by Dr Gordon Rintoul, director of the museums, in a decision that could be announced as early as this week.

The Canadian government has told the Herald on Sunday that it is committed to a "respectful repatriation" of the remains, and UK museum campaigners have called for the return of the skulls, which were taken from their grave in the 1820s.

Thus far, the National Museums of Scotland have been tight-lipped on the subject, which were brought to Scotland in circumstances that would be impossible today: the remains belong to Chief Nonobawsut, and his young wife Demasuit, whose land was taken by Governor Charles Hamilton in the early 19th century.

Demasduit was captured, while Nonosbawsut, her husband and community leader, was murdered.

Demasduit died of tuberculosis on 8 January 1820 and her body was placed in a burial hut beside her husband and child.

A Scots-Canadian, William Cormack, then took the skull and other goods from the grave of Nonosbawsut and sent them to Edinburgh, with other funerary objects retrieved from that site, to his mentor Robert Jameson, a Professor of Natural History at the University of Edinburgh.

The last of the Beothuk people, a woman named Shanawdithit, died in 1829 of tuberculosis.

The collection of the university museum to which Jameson added Cormack's items was later incorporated into the holdings of the National Museum of Scotland.

Dr Rintoul, in an interview this week on the subject of the Beothuk remains, said that he is close to making a decision on what to do with the skulls, and suggested that he has not ruled out returning the skulls to Newfoundland.

The debate over what museums should, and should not, hold, has dramatically evolved in the last 20 years, with campaigners calling for the return of human remains held in UK and western museums to the lands and people from which they were taken.

The subject of the fate of human remains in UK collections has become part of the broader discussion about the 'decolonisation' of British museums: to give a louder and more detailed voice to those peoples colonised by the British Empire, and to offer forms of restitution, including the return of objects.

Dr Rintoul, this week, noted that the skulls have not been the subject of extensive scientific research since they were brought to Scotland.

In 2017, an NMS statement said they were of "utmost scientific importance, as they represent a now-extinct tribe and these skulls are among the very last evidence for this tribe."

The NMS, he noted, has been returning human remains for over a decade: it returned human remains to New Zealand in 2008, as well as Australia and Tasmania.

A decision on the Beothuk remains could be announced as early as this week.

He said that the NMS had been working through a "detailed" checklist of considerations about the remains.

Dr Rintoul said: "We hope to have an answer on this shortly. In my experience, no two situations are alike: New Zealand is probably the most straightforward place, because of the collaborations between the indigenous groups and the Government, it's been well worked out for some time, it is a straight forward process.

"Not all countries have that approach, but to be honest there's not that many groups who are active in seeking human remains."

He added: "Like the broader restitution debate, there are no straightforward answers.

"I think all one can do is make a judgement.

"At the end of the day, you have to form a judgement on what is the right thing to do, weigh up the various arguments, and that is why we are other major museums in the UK have a formal process to consider these decisions."

Dr Rintoul said the attitude of museums to displaying and owning human remains has changed in the last 20 years.

"Museums do not somehow sit apart from society," he said, "so I would say that what museums display, and how they display, is in part a reflection of the expectations and approaches and views of wider society.

"And as society, certainly in the western world, people do not expect to see human remains in general on display, the only exception to that seems to be Egyptian mummies."

Campaigners for the return of human remains from museums to the culture or countries from which they were taken have strong views.

One is Alice Procter, who is an art historian and museum educator, a campaigner for more ethical museum practice.

She runs the Uncomfortable Art Tours at the National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, Tate Britain and the Queen’s House at the National Maritime Museum.

She believes it is "well past time" for the the NMS to return the remains.

Ms Proctor said: "Purely the aesthetics of this, the optics of this, reflects so badly on the National Museum, it really does.

"It's a kind of passive complicity in historical violence, and continuing to keep these remains, and to somehow insist on their scientific importance and value, the museum is saying it was right to take them in the first place.

"If the National Museum of Scotland think that's OK, they need to take a long hard look at themselves."

She added: "Museums have human remains as a relic of a previous way of understanding the world.

"For the most part, these people end up part of collections as part of a bigger narrative of objectification and violence against indigenous people.

"It is overwhelmingly indigenous people that are in these collections, and as with the case of the Beothuk skulls, they are taken without any kid of permission from the community, and they taken in secret, and in incredibly invasive and violating ways.

"The fact they are still in the collections, to me, is completely unacceptable. There is no possible reason for keeping these remains and not repatriating them."

Dr Rintoul noted the grim history of the remains.

He said: "They date from a time when it was perfectly common for museums around the world to collected human remains, both from their own countries and from others.

"If you went up and down the UK you'd find all sorts of museums with human remains from UK archaeological digs, however I think in the past 10 to 20 years, across the world, there has been a pretty big shift in the question of should a museum have human remains that are from other cultures and other countries. You'd be hard pushed to find many significant museums who wouldn't at least consider returning human remains."

Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, had a private visit of the NMS when he visited Edinburgh in 2017, although he did not mention the Beothuk case.

A new statement from the Canadian government said: "The Department of Canadian Heritage is working diligently with its partners throughout the process established by the policies and legislation governing National Museums Scotland for the successful return of Beothuk human remains.

"The Government of Canada is committed to reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples of Canada and recognizes that the respectful repatriation of Indigenous remains and cultural property can play an important role in that process."

Chief Mi'sel Joe, who has led the efforts to return the bodies, said: "I am truly hoping this can happen in this year."

The Canadian request has been backed by the Canadian Museum of History, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador and several indigenous peoples governments and organisations.

The request for the remains also includes a declaration backing their return to Canada by the leaders of five indigenous governments and organisations: the Innu Nation, the Miawpukek First Nation, the Nunatsiavut Government, the NunatuKavut Community Council Inc. and the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation.

Chief Mi’sel Joe has visited Edinburgh twice to view the times, and performed a ceremony over the remains.

Chief Mi'sel, of the the Mi’kmaq, along with the Innu and the Innuit, share the traditional lands of the Beothuk.

"They were stolen from Newfoundland. They belong to us and they should be brought back," he has said.

Last year, a motion was made in the Newfoundland-Labrador House of Assembly by member Tracey Perry calling for repatriation of the remains “so that they may be laid to rest with dignity.”

In 2017, Chief Mi'sel Joe outlined the importance of the remains.

He told The Telegram: "It was a dark time in our history in Newfoundland, and to me it’s not an aboriginal issue as much as it’s a Newfoundland issue that we all need to get involved in, because it’s part of our history.

"When you look at the history of the Beothuk people and how their demise came about, I think we owe it to them and their remains.

"And their spirit will never be free - we need to do something about that."

Tiffany Jenkins is an author, academic, broadcaster and consultant on cultural policy,

An honorary Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, her book Keeping Their Marbles: How Treasures of the Past Ended Up in Museums and Why They Should Stay There was published in 2016 to acclaim, and she also wrote Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections: The Crisis of Cultural Authority.

Ms Jenkins feels the remains should stay with the NMS.

She said: "In a way to understand what these human remains were, who they were and how they lived, you do need a scientific approach to them.

"The peculiar and paradoxical thing about human remains is that they are both people, they used to be a person, and they are also unique scientific evidence, so that is why they are so charged, and people can make claims upon them."

Ms Jenkins notes that often, the bodies are all that remains of certain cultures: there is no written records, books or notes.

"The peculiar thing, and the difficult thing is, if we want to understand who those people were, where they came from, how they lived, population movement and diversity, we need to be able to research those human remains," she said.

"Scientific interest sounds really abstract and clinical, but it is actually about the people."

Ms Jenkins is well aware of the political aspects to the debate.

She adds: "That's the difficulty. Obviously as a human being you think: this terrible thing happened, what can we do to apologise for it, or to repair those communities, or the wound that is left in Canada?

"I think the solutions are political and social, and they are also about opening up a conversation about what happened and why it happened, rather than a simple moralising - try to understand it.

"But instead we get: well maybe if we give someone some bones, it will somehow repair it. Which I think won't work, and the things that those bones could do, is tell us about who those people were and in some cases that is completely off the agenda.

"And sometimes when they are returned, they are reburied: so what they can tell us about those people is buried underground."

Ms Jenkins said that the increase in these demands for repatriation comes from a "politicisation of culture", which stems from a failure in politics, "an inability to address problems in a political way, so culture becomes a symbol which people turn to instead", and a loss of confidence in what museums are for - "which is tell us about human beings and human civilisations."

The NMS says that dialogue with the groups who desire the return of objects is a key part of the process.

Dr Rintoul points to the 2008 show Extremes: Life in Subarctic Canada, which showed the world of the Tlicho people, with 300 items from the 1850s and 1860s.

The NMS staff took the show to Ottawa and Prince Edward Island, and collected new material.

Dr Rintoul added: "Decolonisation means different things to different people: it is a term I do not find particularly helpful, because what does it mean?

"Major museums like ourselves, and others like the British Museum and the V&A, have a huge quantity of material, but it is been acquired through a huge range of ways, through purchase, through donation, purchased from whoever made it to begin with in the late 19th century, and the amount that has been acquired through, say, military expeditions is only a tiny part of the whole.

"I think it is fair to say that the way museums would view acquiring objects now is very different from 150 years ago or even 50 years ago.

"That's particularly been since the 1970 UNESCO convention on protecting cultural property, which led to a sea-change in the museums world as a whole, with greater emphasis on documenting the provenance of objects acquired.

"Attitudes have changed enormously since the Beothuk material was gathered and acquired, and it certainly would not be acceptable now.

"I think it's really important that museums do not duck the difficult histories attached to these objects.

"We cannot re-write the past, but what we can do is be honest about what that past is, and how we acquired some of that material."

Mark O’Neill, the former head of Glasgow Museums, who led the return of the Ghost Dance Shirt to the Lakota Sioux in 1999m said: “I don't think there are any pitfalls in returning the object, or rather if there are, we just have to live with them. 

“When we were managing the Ghost Dance Shirt, as you will remember, there were many who were saying that returning one thing would open the floodgates. 

“ This has not happened - though it still may - but I have always thought it was ethically wrong to refuse to do something that was right, in case it would generate further requests. These just have to be dealt with. 

“It's part of the job of 21st century museums to deal with the history of our collections,  and how they reflect global interconnections and the moral complexity of historical rights and wrongs. 

“This is not a problem for museums, it is our job. It is not a distraction from our work - it is exactly why museum collections are interesting and important.”

He added: “Looking back, one of the best things about the Lakota Ghost Dance Shirt repatriation was that we did it in public - the committee deliberations, the hearing in the Burrell, the display in Kelvingrove which gave people a change to comment.

“It was a massive curatorial task in the service of public education, which is what museums are for. 

“From where we started with headlines about 'Indians on the Warpath' to the coverage of the Burrell hearing, there was a great improvement in the quality of the public debate.

“ For the NMS, this request is a major opportunity to discuss many of the most significant issues of the meaning, power and ownership of objects.”

In a recent paper, Mr O’Neill noted that European colonisers and their decendents collected “millions” of object and human remains from indigenous peoples, through trade, gift or using force.

Restitution in the US is governed by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990, and legislation similar has been passed in New Zealand and Australia. In Canada, under the provisions of a Museums Act of 1990, they deal with claims on a case-by-case basis.