Church Archaeology Human Remains Working Group Report

Response to consultation on guidelines on the treatment of Christian burials in archaeological projects
1. Background

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

The Association has over 4,500 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 guidelines on the treatment of Christian burials in archaeological projects.

The Museums Association's response reflects the views expressed by members of our Public Affairs Committee, Ethics Committee, Governing Bodies Forum and views expressed during a recent Museums Association event examining human remains in museums. Over 100 individuals have contributed to this response.

1.4 The Museums Association's comments are limited to certain areas of the recommendations made by the working group, and deal specifically with elements of the report that have a direct effect on museums.

2. We agree with the principal assumptions underpinning the working groups deliberations.

3. Through discussions concerning the treatment of human remains in museums we have found that there is considerable consensus in a number of areas. Many of these are areas are covered by the working groups report.

3.1 There is consensus that human remains are a special category of material in museum collections. Human remains must be treated in a sensitive and respectful way.

3.2 We fully support the principle that human remains have a significant scientific value and have contributed much to our understanding of the past. Museums have a key role to play in advancing this scientific knowledge. It is therefore right that human remains of scientific value should be retained by institutions like museums to allow for the continuing study and research of this material.

However the problem that currently faces many museums is a lack of clear advice or guidance on what constitutes 'scientific value' and how this can be assessed. This makes if difficult for museums to make decisions on the long-term future of the human remains they hold.

We believe that there is a need for better guidance and advice on the criteria for assessing the scientific value of both current deposits and future acquisitions of human remains within museum collections. We welcome the specific guidance on the factors affecting the research value of a skeletal collection contained within the report.

3.3 We support the view that wherever possible when dealing with human remains it is important to fully take into account the views of living family members regarding the use and treatment of the remains.

3.4 We welcome the report's recommendation that all collections should be subject to periodic review. We believe that museums need to fully assess why they are retaining collections of human remains, what potential they have for education through research or display, and whether their museum is the best place for these items to be housed.

We strongly support the recommendation for good documentation for collections of human remains, including the publication of any research findings.

3.5 Whilst there is no movement towards the wholesale reburial of museum collections there is a strong view that a museum holding human remains which are regarded as possessing little scientific value, should be able to rebury them.

3.6 We have found that there is some consensus that due to the sensitive nature of human remains they would be better stored in dedicated, secure areas offering a high standard of care, which would ensure their long-term preservation and research potential.

3.7 We support the view that displays of human remains in museums can be of significant educational value. If done in a respectful manner human remains can be used to illustrate a wide variety of aspects relating to the past. However it is important for museums to give considerable thought to how and why they are displaying human remains, and measures should be put in place to ensure that members of the public who do not wish to see human remains are accommodated.

3.8 We have found that there is overwhelming support for a licensing body to oversee the use of human remains by museums, especially if this was accompanied by the creation of better guidance for museums and other holding institutions for the treatment of human remains. Guidance should cover aspects such as care, storage, research, display and disposal of remains.

We believe there is a need to improve the way that human remains are treated in many museums. Variations currently exist in the standards of care and treatment afforded to human remains in museums across the United Kingdom. A licensing authority would ensure that a set of minimum standards for best practice could be established and only those adhering to such standards would be able to retain human remains.

We feel it would be helpful to extend the licensing regime beyond the museum environs to archaeological units and other bodies holding human remains. This is due to the fact that much archaeological material remains with contract archaeologists for a considerable period of time awaiting the publication of the finds. Therefore they must adhere to the same high standards as museums regarding the care of human remains in their possession.

We do not believe that a licensing system need be burdensome or expensive, but we do believe it should be legally enforceable.

3.8 We support the commitment to the establishment of a national advisory body set up by English Heritage and the Church of England. However we feel that there should be a single advisory body dealing with all issues relating to human remains. We feel that the proposed advisory body should be an interim measure that would cease to exist if and when a National Advisory Panel was established as a result of the recommendations made in the report by the DCMS Working Group on Human Remains.

Although the DCMS report from the Working Group on Human Remains focused heavily on the treatment of human remains of overseas origin it does cover all human remains held in British museums including those of U.K. origin. Therefore any disputes over human remains should be dealt with by a single body, which could draw on advice from English Heritage and the Church of England. The creation of a single body would be preferable.

Any advisory panel would be there to offer independent advice to museums, however museums would not be bound by any course of action suggested by the panel.

4. In conclusion: the publication of the Church Archaeology human remains working group report and the DCMS working group report have encouraged much meaningful debate around the subject of human remains. It is clear that this is a difficult and emotive issue, but one which museums must deal with. We have found a real willingness on the part of museums and museum practitioners to enter into the debate and address these issues. All are keen to have more advice and guidelines in this area and we believe that most would welcome some form of code of best practice for dealing with human remains.

Museums Association
June 2004

Maurice Davies
Head of Policy and Communication
24 Calvin Street
E1 6NW
020 7426 6955