The Museums Association
The Museums Association has conducted a review of its ethical advice to museums relating to the disposal of items in collections – Museum Disposal. The guidance is not specifically focused on human remains and much of the language is inappropriate for human remains (e.g. “disposal of objects”). In some regards the guidelines are useful in that they, to some extent, make it permissable for museums to dispose of items – to rationalise collections. For example, categories of items that museums are invited to consider for disposal include: “items outside of the museum’s collection policy, underused items, items for which the museum in unable to provide adequate care, items that are damaged or deteriorated beyond the museum’s ability to repair or uncontexualised or unprovenanced items” – all of which could apply to human remains. HAD feels there is insufficient recognition of the special nature of human remains here – something addressed elsewhere in the Human Tissue Act – and will be writing to the Museums Association offering to help develop the next draft.
The Museums Association Code of Ethics is another document worth exploring.
English Heritage/Church of England
The report Guidance for best practice for treatment of human remains excavated from Christian burial grounds in England was published in 2005 by the Church of England and English Heritage. Its remit are burials interred in Christian burial grounds since the foundation of the Church in England in CE 597. Initially, a consultation report was written by a working group of the Church of England and English Heritage convened in 2001. A three-month consultation period resulted in 32 responses from organisations and individuals, covering archaeological, museum, heritage and church interests.
The resulting document makes recommendations on how to treat human remains in a way consistent with Church of England ethics. The Guidance includes the legal and theological framework, what constitutes ethical treatment, gives case studies, and lists standards for archaeological procedures. There are inconsistencies, however. Clearly, until the time of Henry VIII, the Church in England was essentially Catholic, under the auspices of the Pope in Rome, but the Catholic Church was not represented on the panel, nor did it respond to the consultation. The report’s remit strangely includes non-Christian burials which may be found within Christian burial grounds (or more accurately, early Christian burial sites often formed around ancient burial mounds), but excludes post-Reformation Catholic and non-conformist burial grounds, military and maritme remains. Neither does the report give guidance for post-seventh century burial grounds of non-Christian faiths, such as Judaism, stating that ‘such guidance should be sought from appropriate religious authorities’ (p. 7). The Pagan community needs to assert its rights in this area.
The Guidance states categorically that local communities and other religious groups may well have a very different ethical attitude towards the excavation, retention and treatment of human remains, and that decisions concerning the long-term fate of human remains should include consultation with interested parties. Para. 86 even acknowledges that ‘it may be difficult to reconcile differing viewpoints’ and encourages compromise solutions such as depositing remains in disused crypts or redundant churches where they can lie in consecrated ground and yet be accessible for future research; and it is suggested that such places could be jointly managed by committees which include representatives of the local community.
It is clear that the interests of HAD and of local communities – both Pagan and non-Pagan – should be understood to be covered by such consultation mechanisms. But it is also an argument for the Pagan community to consider convening its own working group to produce similar guidance for the treatment of ancient Pagan remains. Key points to consider will be whether the benefits of excavation, retention and study of human remains, in terms of the accrual of knowledge and the telling of (some of) the stories of the ancestors, will outweigh the desire to leave their bones undisturbed, or re-burying them as soon as possible. These are issues on which the Pagan community may not be agreed, but the balance of opinion may well be very different from that of the Church of England and English Heritage guidlines, which are generally supportive of beneficial research on human remains more than 100 years old, on the grounds that close next of kin would not be directly affected: there is little sense there of the continuing importance of the dead people themselves, who to Pagans are ancestors with whom many feel a close and visceral connection.