This introductory guide is a broad overview to the much more complex topic of human remains in museums. We have provided a full guide, compiled by experts and featuring extensive legal guidance, which is essential for anyone displaying or storing human remains in a museum.
This introduction will cover the basic points to refresh your memory when you encounter these issues while running your museum.
Why display human remains?
Museums are places where people are encouraged to encounter a variety of experiences with respect and understanding. As such they are an appropriate home for a wide variety of items and we firmly believe that this can, and should, include human remains, grave goods and sacred items.
At the same time museums hold their collections in trust for past and future generations. They have continuing responsibilities associated with the objects themselves, and the express and implied wishes of collectors and donors. Museums have a duty to care for their collections and an equal duty to encourage access and understanding for as many people as possible.
Understanding the issues
Our aim is to offer guidance rather than to be prescriptive, while emphasising the legal requirements that museums must observe. We also wish to foster an atmosphere in which museums respond openly and fairly to requests about human remains, care for them in the best possible way and maximise their potential to help us learn more about our past and our common human identity.
In these guidelines, the term ‘human remains’ is used to mean the bodies, and parts of bodies, of members of the species Homo sapiens. This includes osteological material (whole or part skeletons, individual bones or fragments of bones and teeth), soft tissue including organs, skin, cornea, bone marrow, embryos and slide preparations of human tissue, nails and hair. It is acknowledged that some cultural communities give these a sacred importance.
Human remains may also include human tissue that may have been modified in some way by human skill. Bound up material and funerary objects are those objects or material other than human remains that are physically bound up with or attached to them in a way that means they can be considered to be inextricably linked.
An ethical framework
The presence of human remains in museum collections raises many ethical issues and has been the subject of much debate. Museums should make a clear commitment to the highest standards of governance, accountability and responsibility for the treatment of human remains.
Consultation should be the key principle governing the treatment of human remains by museums. One example might be the need to consult with religious groups, or other institutions, if the remains were originally from burial grounds in their care.
There are six main responsibilities of museums in managing human remains are:
- Rigour. Act with appropriate knowledge, skill and care so that you can justify your decisions.
- Honesty and integrity. Declare conflicts of interest, show honesty in sharing knowledge and act in a principled manner to earn trust.
- Sensitivity. Show compassion and sensitivity for the feelings of other people and understanding different religious, spiritual and cultural perspectives.
- Respect. Treat all people and communities with respect, ensuring that adverse impacts on them are minimised. Honour privacy and confidentiality.
- Openness and transparency. Listen, inform and communicate openly and honestly.
- Fairness. Act fairly, give due weight to the interests of all parties and develop a consistent management process.
Curation, care and use
Human remains have a unique status in your museum.
Their value for research and the emotional connection to such collections means that they require the highest standards of collections management. Not only that but you should communicate with and involve local communities in your procedures for managing human remains.
Develop a policy for treating and acquiring human remains and put it online to maintain transparency and openness. There should always be a clear explanation of why your museum holds remains.
The law relating to the rights of ownership and possession of human remains means that the acquisition of human remains needs to be considered differently from other museum items. Read our full guide for legal advice on human remains.
Remains can be added to collections where you are satisfied that:
- They are held lawfully
- Provenance is clearly established
- There is no suspicion of illicit trade
- They are of potential value to the museum or wider research community.
Ensure the same standards for any museum you are transferring or loaning human remains to.
Storage and conservation
The storage of human remains should be actively managed and monitored to meet suitable standards of security, access management and environment.
Whenever it is possible for remains to be separated, each should be given a storage container – specially designed storage boxes for skeletons are now available. Current UK museum practice favours the use of inert packing materials, but we recognise that other cultures may have alternative views on the most appropriate packaging.
For conservation, apply a principle of minimal intervention and reversibility, only performing work when absolutely necessary and avoiding treatments that cause contamination or damage.
Public display and access
It is appropriate to give careful thought to the display of human remains. They can help people learn more about science and history or understand burial practices. Equally they can bring people into physical contact with past people and can encourage reflection.
Surveys show that the vast majority of visitors are comfortable with, and often expect to see human remains (usually skeletons) as part of museum displays.
If you wish to display human remains, consider the following questions:
- How does the inclusion of human remains contribute to interpretation? Can this be achieved another way?
- Can we include material to explain why human remains are on display?
- Should you put up a warning so visitors know that human remains are on display, or even set aside a specific area for them?
You may wish to grant access to special interest societies, educational groups and researchers. Think carefully about the amount of access you will allow. Handling can can damage items and risks offending religious and cultural sensibilities surrounding human remains.
For full guidance on allowing researchers access to human remains, read the full guide.
We advise that every museum with collections of human remains should compile, and make public, an inventory of their holdings.
This information should include:
- The number of remains
- The physical nature of the items
- Date of death, or an approximation
- Provenance of the remains
- Statues within the collection
Requests for return
Museums may be approached by individuals or groups seeking the return or repatriation of human remains. We strongly recommend that your governing body develops a clear, written and public procedure for dealing with such requests. This should explain the criteria on which a decision will be made and the decision-making process.
We recommend that claims are dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
Responding to requests
When a request is made, send a formal acknowledgement that outlines the procedures relating to such requests. Then you need to consider the nature of the request.
Try to establish:
- The identity of the claimant
- The connection between the claimant and the deceased
- The specific remains being claimed
- The claimant's wishes for the future of the remains
- Information the claimant has regarding other potential claimants
Then consider the following criteria as parameters for accepting or denying requests:
- A clear link between the remains and the claimant
- The provenance and history of the remains
- Clear identification that the remains in discussion are those sought by the claimant
- The rights of any representatives to request on behalf of a claimant
- The significance of the remains to both the claimant and the museum
- Future treatment of the remains
- Partnerships with the claimant for increased knowledge and publicity for your museum.
- The consequences of retaining the remains
- The broader implications of not returning the remains
Every stage of this process should be thoroughly documented.
After the decision
If you decide to repatriate or return the human remains the claimant should be fully involved in all decisions regarding their treatment in the period before the transfer. This includes photography, analytical research, media comment and any other event.
Maintain clear communication through the whole process, helping the claimant with any information they require and discussing the process with the museum's stakeholders
A full explanation should be provided to the claimant of how and why the decision was reached. They should then be given time to respond. If a request for return is turned down this should not prevent further dialogue with the claimant.
Ideally, the claimant and the museum should work together to prepare media statements within an agreed timeframe and approach.
The full guide features a chapter that lists, in detail, all legal considerations for the care of human remains. Study this thoroughly before acquiring any human remains.