National Trust/English Heritage Avebury Reburial Consultation: response

January 2009
1.0 Introduction

The Museums Association (MA) is an independent membership organisation representing museums, galleries and heritage organisations in the UK and people who work for them.

The Association has over 5,000 individual members and 600 institutional members. These institutional members encompass around 1500 museums in the UK ranging from the largest government-funded national museums to small volunteer-run charitable trust museums. Both English Heritage (EH) and National Trust (NT) are members of the MA.

Formed in 1889, it is a charity, receiving no regular government funding, which seeks to inform, represent and develop museums and people who work for them in order that they may provide a better service to society and the public.

This response has been informed by comments made by the MA's ethics committee.

The MA welcomes the opportunity to respond to the EH/NT consultation on the reburial of prehistoric human remains at Alexander Keiller Museum, Avebury, Wiltshire.

Our response makes some general points and comments, with particular reference to the decision-making process that has been followed by EH and NT.

In this response the term "museums" is used to refer to all UK public museums, galleries and heritage sites.

2.0 Background

The MA publishes the Code of Ethics for the museum sector, the latest edition of which was released in 2007. This document sets out ethical principles for people working in or governing public museums to help them fulfil their ethical responsibilities to society. The Code of Ethics can be accessed via the MA website

In addition, the MA has a long-running interest in human remains and has contributed to the work of Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Church of England in this area, including the DCMS 2005 'Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums'.

The MA's role is to advise museums on ethical matters, issuing guidance to help them make appropriate ethical decisions on a case-by-case basis. We expect museums to use the Code of Ethics and other relevant material (in this case the 2005 DCMS guidance), as part of a wider process of consultation and research. They must balance the needs of past, present and future users to arrive at an ethical decision that maximises public benefit.

3.0 The Avebury Request

We would like to commend EH and NT for the prompt and sensitive manner in which they have dealt with this claim. In accordance with the MA's Code of Ethics they have developed a relationship with the British Council of Druid Orders (CoBDO) based on mutual respect and understanding. We hope that EH and NT will continue to nurture a constructive relationship with the CoBDO regardless of the outcome of this case and involve them as part of any relevant future public consultation, for example concerning the display of human remains.

We commend EH and NT's use of the DCMS guidance, which although more regularly used in overseas claims was written to apply to requests from UK and non-UK based groups and material. They have paid appropriate attention to their procedural responsibilities and gathered detailed evidence under the recommended criteria.

On the basis of the information we have seen, EH and NT have followed a robust and comprehensive ethical decision-making process. We are confident that if they follow the evidence and views they have collected EH and NT will arrive at an ethical conclusion. Although each request for reburial of human remains must be evaluated on its own merits, in terms of the development of sound ethical practice, we are satisfied that this will set an appropriate precedent for other museums to follow.

3.4 If EH and NT use the evidence presented in the consultation paper to balance the (conflicting) ethical principles 'respect for diversity of belief' with 'respect for the value of science' and 'solidarity' as set out in the 2005 DCMS guidance document, their decision should also be in accordance with the Code of Ethics.

We feel encouraged that EH and NT have conducted this process in an open and transparent way and that this approach will help maintain public trust. As this case will set an important precedent for other museums, we would like to stress the wider benefits of maintaining this level of transparency through to its conclusion. It is essential that any decision and its ethical rationale is communicated within the museum and heritage community as well as to all relevant stakeholders and the general public.

3.6 Claims such as this pose an opportunity for museums to scrutinise the suitability of items in their collection and how that collection is being used to public benefit. We hope that Avebury museum will use this opportunity to review the continued retention and display of the human remains in their care. As with any collections review museums have an ethical responsibility to safeguard the long-term public interest in collections by ensuring that those collections are well managed and sustainable. This should be conducted in a way that also recognises "the interests of people who made, used, owned, collected or gave items in the collections" (MA 2007:18).

Rebecca Jacobs
Museum development officer, ethics and professional development
Museums Association
24 Calvin Street
E1 6NW
020 7426 6946