DCMS Guidance Correspondence
Report on Honouring the Ancient Dead’s request to DDCMS for an update of their 2005 Guidance on the Care of Human Remains in Museums
Sarah Levitt, HAD Board Member
Although it has some flaws, overall the DCMS’s 2005 Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums is a useful and much needed publication. However it is now well over a decade old, and is in need of an update. Therefore, on behalf of HAD in September 2018 I wrote to the Under Secretary of State for Arts, Heritage and Tourism at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, requesting that the DDCMS carries out this work, or commissions an organisation, such as Arts Council England or the Museums Association, to produce a new edition on its behalf.
Our letter made the following points:
- Much has happened since 2005 both in the UK and further afield. The publication of the Guidance stimulated much debate and numerous scholarly articles. Many museums published their own human remains policies, and this subject has much greater awareness than it did pre-2005. This is especially the case since the dead of the First World War will shortly have died over 100 years ago. All this new thinking now needs to be reflected in a new edition of the Guidance.
- The emphasis in the 2005 Guidance was very much on the return of skeletons, cremations and associated material to other countries. This was an important issue at the time for National Museum collections, and again a body of experience and good practice has built up around this which needs to be reflected in a new edition of the Guidance.
- However, the main issue for most non-national museums relates to skeletons, cremations and associated material in their care which originated in the British Isles. In our view the 2005 Guidance did not give this sufficient consideration and a new edition could remedy this.
- The 2005 Guidance refers only to skeletons, cremations and associated material in museum collections. However, most of these are maintained by museums as a Statutory function, in designated local archaeological archives. These comprise of finds deposited as a result of local archaeological excavations, which nowadays tend to arise as a result of developer activity. In our view the Guidance does not refer sufficiently to the practices, duties and responsibilities of archaeology teams before, during and after discovery and exhumation. Nor does it consider the key role of the Ministry of Justice in issuing Exhumation Licences to archaeological fieldwork teams which make this process possible. This issue is increasing in importance as the pace of redevelopment speeds up, and more and more of the people who lived and died here before we did are excavated. In our view a new edition could remedy this.
The DDCMS responded as follows:
The department agrees that knowledge and experience of dealing with these issues within the sector has increased since the Guidance document was published and we would encourage the sharing of new ideas. However, we do not agree that there are sufficient grounds at this time for reviewing and re-issuing the Guidance.
It remains our view that the model criteria in part 3 of the Guidance for assessing repatriation claims can be applied equally well to human remains originating from overseas or within the UK. We do not feel that this needs to be remedied.
We note your comment about human remains in archaeological archives maintained by museums. However, the DCMS Guidance was provided to assist museums over the handling of human remains in their collections and issues such as the role of archaeology teams during excavations and the issuing of exhumation licences by the Ministry of Justice are not issues the Guidance was designed to cover.
In response we wrote back to the DDCMS reiterating our points and providing additional detail:
1. DDCMS comment:
(While) knowledge and experience of dealing with these issues … has increased since the Guidance was published…. We do not agree that there are sufficient grounds at this time for reviewing and reissuing the Guidance.
- The 2005 Guidance needs to be refreshed at the very least, and even overhauled so it is fit for purpose. It is a good document, accepted by museums as best practice, and expected to be referred to in museums’ Collections Development Policies as part of Accreditation, but its age is now a problem.
- The Equality Act 2010 should be cited in the Guidance. This could potentially apply, since different religious and cultural groups are affected, and museums provide a public service.
The Historic England/Church of England guidelines were reissued by APABE as a second edition in 2017, and so too should the 2005 DCMS Guidelines:
- The 2005 guidance suffered from being among the first of its kind. The later guidance published for Scottish Museums in 2011 is more balanced, with less emphasis on the concerns of National Museums regarding repatriation claims from non-UK communities.
For example, the 2011 Scottish Museums version opens with the following:
Human remains are held in thousands of museum collections across the world, the result of more than three centuries of collecting and scientific study. These collections have been invaluable in piecing together our biological and cultural history. In recent years, however, museums have found themselves at the centre of debates over collecting, displaying and storing human remains. These debates have highlighted the need for human remains to be professionally managed, and for museums to be ready to deal sensitively with any of the issues which can come up, such as requests for repatriation.
In contrast, the 2005 DCMS version opens as follows:
In July 2000, the Prime Ministers of the UK and Australia met in London and made a Joint Declaration to increase efforts to repatriate human remains to Australian indigenous communities, wherever possible and appropriate. In response to this, in May 2001, the then Minister for the Arts, the Rt Hon Alan Howarth CBE MP, set up the Working Group on Human Remains, which was charged to examine the current status of human remains within the collections of publicly-funded Museums and Galleries in the United Kingdom, and consider the desirability and possible form of legislative change in this area.
- The next appropriate time for a new edition of the Guidance to be published might be just before April 2022 when the next ACE funding programme is expected to start. To do this, at least a two-year lead in period may be needed. If a new edition is not published, 2022 will seem a very long time from 2005, and so we would urge you to reconsider your decision. Having a new edition will also be particularly important once HS2 begins to be constructed, since thousands of human skeletons are expected to be excavated across the country.
- Incidentally, publishing a new edition of the Guidance would rectify an anomaly when using Google as a search engine. The Guidance has to be accessed via other organisations’ web sites. The link below comes at the top of a Google search and is from the British Museum, however the link when accessed often comes up just as ‘page not found’:
The Collections Trust link comes below this, but it does work:
Although the Guidance is apparently kept for reference in the National Archives, since it is an old government document, it is not easily accessible from their site – the National Archives does not appear at all on a Google search for the Guidance’s title.
2. DDCMS comment:
The model criteria in part 3 of the Guidance for assessing repatriation claims can be applied equally well to human remains originating from overseas or within the UK. We do not feel that this needs to be remedied.
- We believe the Guidance does not pay sufficient attention to communities in the UK with regard to human remains originating in the UK. Even the authors of Historic England’s report, regarding the request to rebury the remains of a person held at Avebury Museum, (AVEBURY REBURIAL REQUEST: SUMMARY REPORT, Thackray and Payne 2009), felt the need to add a caveat that the Guidance’s ‘basic principles were felt to apply’ in the absence of ‘any more suitable established process.’
- This was clearly said because in their view the Guidance related to ‘the way in which museums should consider claims for the repatriation of human remains from other countries’ (See quotation below).This could easily be rectified by a ‘more suitable process’ for dealing with requests for reburial within the UK being described in a new edition.
- AVEBURY REBURIAL REQUEST: SUMMARY REPORT
David Thackray (National Trust) and Sebastian Payne (English Heritage) 2009
2: Consideration according to DCMS process: Report and Consultation.
2.1 The DCMS Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums (2005) gave recommendations for the way in which museums should consider claims for the repatriation of human remains from other countries, and especially those obtained during the colonial period. However its basic principles were felt to apply to the Avebury request, and it was felt that the criteria that it set out could reasonably be applied, especially in the absence of any more suitable established process.
3. DDCMS comment:
The DCMS Guidance was provided to assist museums…. as such the role of archaeology teams … and the Ministry of Justice are not issues the Guidance was designed to cover.
- Prior to 2005 the need to include archaeological excavation organisations in the Guidance as well as museums was raised by at least one consultee. Often nowadays archaeology units are independent businesses, and so for instance they have no ability to consult with communities and are accountable to the developers who pay them and the planning process. Scientific analysis of human bones by osteo-archaeologists has also developed considerably. APABE’s Science and the Dead Guidance sets out the various techniques now used for analysis:
- With the pace of development increasing, there is certainly a need for the scope of the DCMS Guidance to be widened from museums to the excavation and care of human skeletons generally. This could be done by renaming the guidance and including a section specifically on the responsibilities of archaeologists and all others involved in the archaeological process. Or there could be an entirely separate document. Whilst you may hope that for instance individual archaeologists and planning professionals will act ethically at all times, having their duties and responsibilities set out in an updated Guidance would be helpful to everyone, helping them to do their job better, as well as providing transparency and assuring the general public.
The DDCMS’s final response:
Sadly the DDCMS has now written back to HAD reconfirming its position. HAD will continue to raise the need for a new edition of the Guidance at every opportunity.