MA response to the Human Tissue Authority's consultation on the Code of Practice for Public Display (of human remains)

Response from the Museums Association, June 2006

1.0 Introduction


1.1 The Museums Association (MA) is an independent membership organisation representing museums and galleries 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 from the MA's ethics committee, and MA members who attended the Human Tissue Authority's (HTA) consultation meeting on the 22nd of June.

The Museums Association (MA) welcomes the opportunity to respond to the HTA's consultation on the Code of Practice for Public Display (of human remains).

2.0 General Comments

2.1 We welcome the potential advice and guidance that the code will be able to offer to museums on the implications of the Human Tissue Act 2004 on the display of human remains held in their collections.

However although the MA welcomes the code of practice we do have some significant concerns about the code as it is currently presented and the accompanying licensing scheme.

2.2 The museum sector has been concerned about the ethical care and treatment of human remains within its collections for some time. The MA feels it is important for the HTA to recognise that the museum sector has already made significant progress on creating advice and guidance for the care and display of human remains, demonstrated through the DCMS Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums. This guidance recognises the unique status that human remains have in museum collections and acknowledges the need for respect and dignity in their treatment. The care of human remains is also referred to in the MA's Code of Ethics, which informs current museum practice. It would be useful if the HTA code could incorporate or highlight this existing guidance.

2.3 The MA is concerned that there is a general lack of awareness and understanding within the museum sector about the implications of the new licensing framework and this could lead to museums unintentionally falling foul of the requirements. We feel HTA needs to engage more actively with the museum sector and work to improve communication with those who may be affected by the code of practice.

2.4 Significant concerns have been raised in relation to the possible cost of the licence needed to display human remains. Although there has been no confirmation on the cost of a licence, a figure in the region of £4500 - £5000 has been suggested. We believe that this would put the licence beyond the reach of many museums, as they will be unable to afford this fee.

A significant number of museums holding human remains covered by the code only posses small collections of remains, sometimes of no more than 50 items (and many of these may fall outside of the regulations). When the HTA is considering the appropriate cost of licenses we recommend introducing a scale of fees, which are proportionate to the size of the collection eligible for licensing.

2.5 Concern has also been expressed about the compliance report that must be completed to gain a license. The length of the report and detail of information required appears to be rather excessive for those museums with very limited holdings. This may put museums off from applying. We would like to recommend that the reports are simplified, or amended to more accurately reflect the differing nature and size of collections of human remains covered.

2.6 When reviewing the application process for licences the MA would like to recommend that the timescale be extended. We are concerned that the current requirement that applications are made by September 2006 will not provide museums with enough time to gather all the information required for the compliance reports. This will certainly be the case if the compliance reports are not available till mid July.

We are concerned that both the cost of the licence and the amount of work needed to be done to acquire one may lead to some museums disposing, perhaps unnecessarily, of human remains in their collections.

2.7 The MA would like to suggest that any final draft of the code provides greater clarity on the rationale behind the introduction of the regulation of the display of human remains. Whilst it is clear that the part of the rationale is guarantee the protection of and respect for the deceased, what is less clear is the extent to which the Act, as described through the code, exists to influence or regulate what is deemed to be acceptable for public display. This naturally raises questions about artistic freedom and needs far more exploration.

3.0 Specific comments


3.1 Scope of the code


3.1.1 Our overriding concern relates to the apparent lack of clarity and potential for confusion surrounding the scope of the code of practice as it is currently presented. There needs to be far better guidance on which human remains are covered by the Act, which remains require a licence and which remains require consent.

It is our understanding that existing collections of remains under 100 years old do require a licence from the HTA, however consent to display these remains is not required. For those remains acquired after September 2006 both a licence and written consent is required. This needs to be stated more clearly in order to guide museums in the actions they need to be undertaking.

3.1.2 It is our understanding that material from overseas is exempt from the Act however this in not stated clearly.

3.1.3 It is important for the HTA to recognise that some museums do not possess completely comprehensive documentation for all the items within their collection. There will therefore be occasions when museums are unable to establish if remains in their care are less that 100 years old and this will pose problems in assessing the need for a licence.

3.2 Definition of display


3.2.1 Some concern has been expressed that the definition of display does not adequately reflect the multiple methods of display and access to collections used in the museum sector. For instance there is no clear guidance on material which is not formally on 'public display' but may be viewed by the public in other circumstances - for instance on tours of stored collections.

3.2.2 There seems to be some confusion over the issue of the licensing of images. Clarification on which images are included in the Act and which are exempt would be appreciated.

4.0 Recommendations:

The MA would like to strongly recommend that the HTA considers the following when they are reviewing their draft code of practice and licensing process:

- The need for greater clarity over the purpose and rationale behind the code practice for pubic display.

- The need for greater clarity over the scope of the code.

- The need to devise a fairer system of charging for the licences, a system that does not penalise museums who often have limited funds and far smaller collections in relation to other institutions covered in the Act. Consider introducing fees that are appropriate and proportionate to the size of museums and their holding of human remains covered by the licensing.

- The need to review the proposed timetable for applications for licenses.

- The need for the HTA to engage more actively and communicate more effectively with the museum sector. It is hoped that the establishment of a Subject Specialist Network for museums working with human remains will improve channels of communication in this area. The MA would be happy to work with the HTA to facilitate the transfer of information and guidance to our members.

- When referring to museums, the code should draw more on the advice and guidance already in existence.