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This is not a simple matter and current changes make it a little more complex. A short piece here explains the situation.
The Treatment of Human Remains in Archaeology 1997 / 2003 Interesting Paper that highlights the differences between the Scottish cultural view point and those in England and Wales. Page 7 paragraph 2 refers to the “right of sepulchre”
Working Group on Human Remains
Commissioned by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, this independent advisory committee published its Report of the Working Group on Human Remains in November 2003. Given to the Minister for the Arts, it deals with the current legal status of human remains within the collections of publicly funded museums and galleries in England and Wales, and formed what was supposed to the basis of the DCMS Guidance (below). In the event, the Guidance considerably watered down the advice given
Department for Culture, Media and Sport
The DCMS became involved in the issue of Human Remains and how they were being treated several years ago. Following a consultation period involving several organisations and museums including HAD they issued Guidelines For the Care of Human Remains in October 2005. A large number of the policies available via the links on this page reference this document.
HAD Feedback on DCMS Guidelines
Once the Guidance had been in use for a year, the DCMS sent out a request for feedback as to how effective the document has been. HAD’s feedback is published here for the public record, available as a web page or Word document.
This document, already going out of date, was compiled from questionnaires sent out to museums across England as a resource for the Working Group in putting together the recent legislation and documentation on human remains. We have heard at HAD how some museums, due to the endemic lack of resources (time and staff) and facing inadequately documented accessioned human remains, failed to fill the forms out accurately, if at all. The content here is frustratingly slight given HAD’s remit and the length of the document; however, it does give some useful pointers about numbers and distribution of human remains, both in terms of museum collections and provenance. In the subsequent DCMS Guidance (above) it was recognised that the degree of information currently available was simply not good enough. It advised that such information should be in the public domain, but put the onus back on the individual museums to do so. See Section 2:10 of the Guidance.
(Museums are now under a perpetual barrage of questionnaires from university graduate students trying to compile this kind of information. Rate of return of such questionnaires is sadly very low, and decreasing, because of the number of requests. HAD is considering ways of addressing this situation.)
December 2018 – for an update on HAD’s correspondence with DDCMS see here.
Following the 2004 Human Tissue Act, all museums (and other institutions) holding human remains less than 100 years old had to purchase a licence from the newly established Human Tissue Authority (HTA). In 2005, this was set at £5000 per annum, a huge amount of money considering the small budget of the majority of museums. It was feared that many would slip around the licence by not acknowledging what recent human remains they held in their collections, or transferring the human remains in their collections to larger museums.
The main problem was that the key thrust of the HTA’s remit were research and medical institutions who hold large numbers of recent human remains whose use must be monitored. The HTA has recently acknowledged that the cost for museums – whose work falls into a different category – was too high and, following a public consultation, has now reduced the licence fee. The HTA statement reads : “The licence fee for public display establishments is £3600 per annum for the main site and £500 per annum for satellite sites. However, for establishments exhibiting fewer than 20 items, the licence fee is £250 per annum. The lower charge reflects the difference in work needed to regulate this sector: public display standards are not as detailed as the other sectors, so require slightly less evaluation. We are also likely to inspect these establishments much less frequently because of the low risk they present.” (May 2007)
This effectively means that the vast majority of museums will only need to pay a £250 annual licence fee, since few museums have more than 20 human remains less than 100 years old on display. This is a sustainable figure to pay each year, and holds out hope that most museums will be transparent about the numbers of human remains in their collections and will agree to monitoring by the HTA in the case of more recent human remains.
Human Tissue Act
The Human Tissue Act of 2004 has some significance for the care of human remains but its scope is directed towards human remains less than 100 years old (as determined on a rolling basis). However, the act does issue Guidelines for Display and the Government is currently in consultation on a Code of Practice for Import and Export of Human Bodies, Body Parts and Tissue.