It is understandable that indigenous communities want to take control of their cultural history. In the past few decades, Native Americans, Australian aborigines, Australian Torres Strait islanders and other groups previously colonized and suppressed by European nations have engaged museums in a rightful debate over whether ancestral bones should be returned to their communities of origin.

The Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC began to return some Native American bones in the late 1980s. And in April this year, the German Museums Association formally agreed that human remains collected as part of a violent conflict should be repatriated. Museums are cautious, however. They recognize the dangers of breaking up scientifically important collections — which have over the decades and centuries become part of world heritage in their own right — if claims to ownership are not clear-cut.

A bizarre case on this sensitive theme is building to a conclusion in Italy. Almost a year ago, a judge in the southern region of Calabria ruled that the skull of a man called Giuseppe Villella should be returned (“for decent burial”) to the small Calabrian town of Motta Santa Lucia, where Villella was born around 1801. The skull is a key exhibit in the Cesare Lombroso Museum of Criminal Anthropology in Turin, northern Italy. The University of Turin, which owns the museum, has appealed the ruling and a decision is expected in December.

The case is a one-off, but it highlights a pressing need for greater legal protection of Italy’s wealth of historically important scientific objects. In 2004, a law extended protection of the country’s remarkable artistic and archaeological heritage to scientific collections in public museums. But Motta Santa Lucia’s claim would take the skull out of the collection — and into legal limbo.

Little is known about Villella other than that he ended his days in a prison near Pavia in northern Italy, where he had been held for stealing goats and cheese. After he died in 1864, Lombroso, then a professor of forensic medicine at the University of Pavia, acquired his skull and noted an abnormal hollow on the inside back surface. This set Lombroso on course to develop a notorious theory that criminality was an inborn characteristic recognizable through particular anatomical features. He went on to collect hundreds of other skulls to back up this theory. It proved incorrect, but does demonstrate Lombroso’s revolutionary willingness to consider that behaviour could be influenced by brain biology.

The judge’s ruling is frustrating. Without calling on scientific expertise — a tendency of Italian judges that has been increasingly criticized (see Nature 491, 7; 2012) — he said that because Lombroso’s theory was known to be wrong, there could be no justification for keeping the skull in a museum.

The inhabitants of Calabria can hardly be considered a suppressed indigenous population. But a tiny political group called the Neo-Bourbon Movement (Movimento Neoborbonico) thinks that the analogy holds. Whereas conventional history considers the creation of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861 to have been a liberation of the south by the north, the Neo-Bourbon Movement views it as an invasion that harmed the southern cultural identity. The movement persuaded the mayor of Motta Santa Lucia to bring charges against the Lombroso museum.

The 2004 Italian cultural-heritage law is set to be updated soon, providing a perfect opportunity to extend protection explicitly to individual scientific objects. This would close a legal loophole and sensitize judges to the true value of the objects, which, like artworks, should not in most circumstances be destroyed or lost to the public.

In the meantime, the Lombroso museum is allowed to keep Villella’s skull on display. The bones await their fate on a shelf just a few metres away from a cabinet that holds the entire — less sensitive — skeleton of Lombroso himself.