Response: consultation on the formation of a new Advisory Panel on the Archaeology of Burials in England (APABE)

April 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.

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 supports the promotion of informed debate on issues concerning human remains and therefore welcomes this consultation. Our response makes some general comments and then focuses on the two areas highlighted in the consultation, the usefulness of an advisory panel and appropriate representation on the panel.

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


The MA published the latest edition of the Code of Ethics for the museum sector 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.

Click here to see the full Code of Ethics

2.2 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 (CoE) 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 and promoting best practice to help museums make appropriate ethical decisions on a case-by-case basis. We expect museums to use the Code of Ethics and other relevant material as part of a wider process of consultation and research.

In cases concerning human remains we promote the use of the 2005 DCMS guidance and the 2005 EH/CoE 'Guidance for best practice for treatment of human remains excavated from Christian burial grounds in England' where appropriate.

2.4 Museums seek to represent a range of stakeholders including among others the scientific community and groups with different religious and non-religious beliefs. They do this by maintaining public trust and maximising public benefit from any ethical decision.

More specifically for museums responding to requests for repatriation or reburial of human remains, the Code expects museums to take into account "the law; current thinking on the subject; the interests of actual and cultural descendents; the strength of claimants' relationship to the items; their scientific, educational, cultural and historical importance; their future treatment" (MA, 2007:18).

3.0 General comments

In principle the MA supports the creation of a single panel to give advice on the archaeological excavation of burials in England. However there is concern among our members that the aim of this panel is unclear and seems to conflate two separate issues, the archaeological excavation of human remains and the care of human remains once in museum collections.

According to the consultation, the aim of the existing APACBE is to provide "consensus professional advice on the archaeological treatment of human remains in Christian graves."

As the consultation highlights the need for "a similar source of advice covering non-Christian graves", it is surprising that the aim of the proposed new panel (APABE) is so vastly altered from the original; "to support curators, practitioners and others in interpreting the guidance documents issued in 2005 by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and by English Heritage and the Church of England, and to produce new guidance where necessary".

The care of human remains in museums, of which burial excavations in England is only one potential source, and the development or interpretation of relevant guidance is a distinct issue requiring input beyond the scope and expertise of the panel.

There is already an established source of good quality advice for the care of human remains in museums. The Human Remains Subject Specialist Network (SSN) has been successfully providing museums and individuals with clear consistent advice and has contributed to the work of APACBE and DCMS. The MA works closely with the Human Remains SSN and strongly supports its expertise in this area. It should be noted that unlike many issues around the archaeological excavation of human remains in England that are covered by legislation, most decisions pertaining to the care of human remains in museums are made by individual museums on behalf of the public, as defined by their legal and ethical responsibilities.

We would strongly advise that the aim of the APABE is revised to focus on the archaeological excavation of human remains in England, providing advice to archaeological curators (rather than museum curators) and practitioners. This would reflect the statutory responsibilities and core expertise of EH, CoE and the Ministry of Justice but also include non-Christian burials. The care of human remains once they enter a museum is therefore beyond the scope of the APABE and is covered by the Human Remains SSN.

If the APABE wish to extend their remit beyond this, a more substantial consultation is necessary including discussions with the MA, Museums Libraries and Archives Council (MLA), Human Remains SSN and DCMS.

Would a single panel for advice and the promulgation of best practice on issues connected with all ancient burials in England be useful?

We agree that a single source of advice on issues connected with the archaeology of the excavation of human remains from burial sites in England would be useful. However, we do not believe the proposed aim of the APABE reflects this for the reasons stated above.

In addition, an APABE that included non-Christian burials could make a useful contribution to discussions about the care of human remains in museums alongside other key stakeholders such as DCMS, MLA, Human Remains SSN and the MA.

There are significant advantages to having several panels/groups, providing advice and guidance on human remains. This promotes high quality discussion and debate and ensures checks and balances are in place. It would be useful to clarify and publicise the remit and boundary between each of these panels/groups; MA, MLA, Human Remains SSN and APABE. The MA would welcome a meeting to discuss this.

It is essential that APABE adopt a transparent collaborative approach to their working practice. Diverse views must be sought to adequately represent all relevant stakeholders and promote robust consultation and decision-making. This is particularly important for ethical issues not covered by legislation or where the interests of more than one group may come into conflict.

5.0 Whether, in addition to representatives of the three national organisations with statutory responsibilities for archaeological burials, any new panel should include representatives of archaeologists, osteologists and museum staff?

The involvement of practitioners with up-to-date knowledge of relevant professional practice is essential. We recommend that the MA ethics committee and the Human Remains SSN each nominate a representative to the panel. We would also advise that a member of the APABE is nominated to the Human Remains SSN and that joint working practices are adopted between the two groups.

Representatives on the panel should be expanded to reflect its revised remit, however we are not in a position to comment which non-Christian groups should be included. Because absolute representation is impossible, the panel must embed transparency and openness into its nomination process and working practices.

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