Response by Museums Association on Human Tissue (Scotland) Bill

8 September 2005

Response by Museums Association on Human Tissue (Scotland) Bill


We are an independent membership organisation representing museums and galleries in the UK and people who work for them. The Association has over 4,500 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 not-for-profit charity, receiving no 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.

The Human Tissue (Scotland) Bill is of great concern to museums which use such material. It is also of wider interest to museums in general because it raises issues about dealing with collection material which is thought to be sensitive for a variety of reasons.

Others have submitted to you more detailed comments on the implications of the Bill for them. The MA will not go into such detail. However, in support of our member museums who will be affected by this we want to submit the following points which we feel to be important.

The MA acknowledges the sensitivities behind this legislation. We understand that new human tissue material coming from anatomised, biopsied or post mortem authorised sources needs regulation because of grave public concern over the handling of such material in the past. We welcome this.

However, we also understand the proposed Bill seeks to restrict public access to human tissue and to forbid the display of human material. These two proposals impinge on the work of many museums.

The MA is extremely concerned at the implications of the Human Tissue (Scotland) Bill and the possibility that this Bill may severely restrict the ability of museums to do their job both now and in the future. There are two particular issues of concern to museums and which we would like to highlight for further discussion towards this legislation.

Firstly, the Bill's proposals are not clear about the status of material which already exists in collections. Existing material, from whatever source, often makes up the bulk of the human tissue collections museums have and most of these have been collected over many years. Many museums have material from other sources, also sometimes unidentifiable.

Secondly these items very often have little accompanying material and there is often very little chance of some material being traced to persons able to give authorisation or to find out whether the material has been gathered as a result of specific procedures.

We suggest that these particular circumstances will mean that much museum material will not be authorised or licensed for public use. This legislation will narrow what is already allowed under the Human Tissue Act which makes all existing human tissue holdings exempt.

We think it is a step back from museums' fundamental purpose to make their holdings accessible and contribute to public knowledge and understanding. It is particularly puzzling coming at a time when Scotland is looking at the whole issue of making access to Scotland's culture an even more fundamental part of Scottish life.

The MA is worried that these restrictions will severely inhibit or forbid the use of existing human tissue collections and severely restrict future collecting and use of such collections.

They may limit the opportunities museums may have to explore this material further and make this knowledge fully accessible. We are also very concerned that the legislation should not inhibit or prohibit Scotland's museums from collaborating with UK-wide or international museums and other bodies who may be permitted to make human tissue material publicly accessible.

The MA joins other commentators we have spoken with such as Scottish Museums Council, the Wellcome Trust and Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in calling for further discussion of these issues, greater clarity over the parameters of the proposals and more detailed guidance for museums and other places holding human tissue material.

The MA would certainly welcome further opportunities to explore concerns.

For more information, or to voice your concerns, please email Judy Aitken, the MA's policy officer: judy@museumsassociation.org