Response to consultation on the draft code of conduct for the Care of Human Remains in Museums

July 2005
1. Background

The Museums Association is an independent organisation representing museums and galleries and the people who work in them.

The Association has over 5000 individual members and 600 institutional members. These encompass around 1500 museums in the UK ranging from the largest national museums to small volunteer run independent museums.

The Museums Association is a democratic organisation; its governing council is elected by the membership. It was founded in 1889 and is a registered charity. It receives no regular government funding.

The Museums Association welcomes the opportunity to respond to the consultation on the draft Code of Conduct for the Care of Human Remains in Museums.

The Museums Association's response reflects the views expressed by members of our Ethics Committee.

2. General comments in support of the code:

The Museums Association welcomes the code of practice and recognise that it is an important step towards finding consensus within the museum community on the issues surrounding the continued retention or return of human remains, and their care and treatment.

The MA welcomes the acknowledgment by the profession that human remains have a unique status within museum collections and therefore require additional policies and guidance in relation to their care, treatment, retention or return.

The MA welcomes the broad scope of the code, and its relevance to all museums holding human remains, not just those with remains from overseas.

As acknowledged in the code, the majority of human remains held in museums are uncontested and uncontroversial. We feel that the advice offered on areas such as storage, conservation, display, use and education will be especially useful for smaller museums that do not have the in-house expertise of larger institutions.

We welcome the inclusion of the ethical principles within the code, they provide a useful framework for museums to consider the complex issues involved when dealing with human remains.

The requirement for greater transparency from museums holding human remains, including the publication of detailed information of remains in their collections, is an important step forward.

The requirement for museums to actively engage in dialogue with claimant groups, and to deal with any claims as expediently as possible are important guiding principles.

3. Additional comments:

We think that it is important for museums to be able to outline clearly the rationale behind the continued retention of human remains within their collections.

We think that any policies produced as a result of the introduction of the Code of Conduct should include a clear statement outlining why a museum has human remains in its collection and how it uses them.

For some museums, especially smaller ones, human remains in the collection are a legacy from past collecting practices and no longer play an active part in the museum's collection. This could mean that it is appropriate for some museums to look at removing human remains from their collections.

We are disappointed that there is no firm commitment to the establishment of some form of independent advisory panel as discussed in the report of the Human Remains Working group. The Museums Association recognises that discussion on the nature of support and advice available to museums with regards to human remains is still ongoing.

However we would like to recommend that there is a firm commitment from DCMS to establish some form of advisory service that will be available to help guide museums through the implications of the code, and to help in cases of requests for the return of remains. We feel that this will be of particular help for smaller museums, who simply do not have the experience and expertise to deal with claims for the return of remains in their collections.

Whilst we recognise that museums will have the responsibility for making the final decision with regard to the return of human remains, in the absence of any independent Human Remains Advisory Panel, we would like museums to be encouraged to seek some form of independent advice in cases involving requests for the return of human remains.

The use of independent advice will help to make the process less one-sided and will hopefully lead claimant groups to feel that their requests have been dealt with fairly and with some degree of impartiality.

We recognise that at this time the code of practice is voluntary, not statutory. but we would recommend some kind of regulatory framework be put in place to ensure that any institution holding human remains is subject to the recommendations of the code.

This could be done through the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) Accreditation Scheme.

It would be useful if the code could include clearer guidance on where museums should publish information about their holdings of human remains. This could perhaps be done through a central portal, hosted by the DCMS or MLA, similar to that for Spoliation.

It would be useful to have some examples of human remains policies, either copies of those in existence or a model for museums to follow. These would provide useful models for museums producing such policies for the first time.

Although the code includes guidance on a number of areas, under the heading of 'use, access and education' it would be useful to include some additional advice and guidance on the acceptable circumstances of photographing human remains either for research or publication.

For further information please contact Caitlin Griffiths, Museums Association, 24 Calvin St, London E1 6NW. 020 7426 6970.