Human remains in museums

The treatment of human remains in UK museum collections has changed over the past few years
Increasingly museums are removing human remains from their collections, for example returning them to their countries of origin, often for reburial.

Australian Aboriginals, New Zealand Maori and Native Americans feel particularly strongly that remains of their ancestors should not be located in museums. Some UK museums returned human remains in the 1990s. Others, such as the British Museum, have begun to do so only recently.

A particular sticking point had been legislation that prevented most national museums from removing items from their collections, but this has now been changed. Nine national museums now have the power to deaccession human remains held in their collections under Section 47 of the Human Tissue Act 2004.

There had also been some strong arguments in favour of retaining human remains. The arguments on both sides are set out in the report of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) working group on human remains, published in 2003. The MA's deputy director, Maurice Davies, was a member of the working group. The report can be found on the Department for Culture website along with otherwise unpublished evidence submitted to the working group.

Things have changed considerably since the publication of the 2003 report and returning human remains now seems far less contentious. In part, this is a result of Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums, published by DCMS in 2005 and also available on the DCMS website. These guidelines are the fullest statement of current good practice. In general UK museums accord human remains of all kinds special treatment, whereas in the past they tended to be treated as 'objects', like any other part of the museum's collection.

Maurice Davies was a member of the drafting group that drew up the guidelines; he said: 'The guidelines represent no dramatic change in the debate on human remains, but they move things on a lot. There is now a very clear structure, making it easier for potential claimants to understand the process. Importantly, representatives of the Natural History Museum and the British Museum were on the drafting group, and unanimously behind the guidelines.'

In addition to the guidelines, DCMS now helps museums that need advice on requests for return by providing approved advisors.

A separate group, established under the auspices of the Church of England and English Heritage, looked in more detail at issues around Christian human remains excavated in England. Its report has been published and an advisory service on English Christian human remains has been launched.

There is growing interest in the way in which museums treat non-Christian human remains of UK origin. See, for example, the organisation Honouring the Ancient Dead.

The display of human remains less than 100 years old is affected by the licensing requirements of the Human Tissue Authority (HTA). The MA had some concerns about the HTA's proposals regarding licensing for public display.

Separate legislation apples in Scotland.


DCMS resources on human remains in UK institutions

DCMS guidance for the care of human remains 2005 (pdf)

DCMS advisory service

Advisory Panel on the Archaeology of Burials in England

Honouring the Ancient Dead

Human Tissue Authority

Museums Association code of ethics

Cultural property advice