The Care of Human Remains in Museums

In May 2005 a Draft Code of Practice for The Care of Human Remains in Museums was published by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Human Remains Code Drafting Group. The drafting group was chaired by Hedley Swain of the Museum of London, together with folk from the Natural History Museum, The British Museum, the National Museums and Galleries of Wales, the Museums Association, Cambridge University, UCL, English Heritage and more. In June, a number of representative and advisory groups were sent the draft document to comment on, and HAD was amongst these.

The document was fairly comprehensive, including legal and ethical issues surrounding the care and use of human remains in British museums. It aimed to outline best practice with respect to how human remains are treated, stored and displayed, and how museums should best interact with individuals and groups for whom the human remains in their keeping are considered of cultural, personal or religious significance.

The draft document states, ‘Traditionally in Britain human remains are treated with respect but no particular sacred or symbolic importance is associated with the remains themselves, except in the case of direct descendents, the remains of major historical figures, or as the focus of collective memorial, such as war dead.’ However, there is now a growing understanding that there are many for whom human remains hold a greater significance. The report later states that a museum must ‘show sensitivity and compassion for the feelings of individuals; show understanding of different religious, spiritual and cultural perspectives.’ It speaks of the need to ‘recognize and respect that a community may place a particular cultural value on a human remain that is not shared by others.’

Looking at the legislation on ownership of human remains, it acknowledges that in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, there is no legal recognition of human remains as property (with a few exceptions). On this basis, museums are encouraged to consider their duty of care and trust as a privilege, and one that must be held with a special responsibility.

There are many thousands of human remains in British museums, a very small proportion of which are displayed, the vast majority being kept in storage. The conditions considered necessary for storing human remains are now changing, and these are laid out in the draft Code of Practice, making it even more expensive for museums, and thus arises the topical issue of deaccession of remains: releasing them from the museum’s care.

Much of the draft Code of Practice is focused upon repatriation of human remains, particular remains being claimed by indigenous groups around the world, such as tribal African and Maori. Although HAD does not need to get involved in such claims, repatriation is an interesting issue. For in terms of tribal Britain, bones disinterred from, say, the Manchester area and now kept in the British Museum in London, are disconnected from their tribal landscape. While this is seen as more poignant by some Pagan traditions than others, many feel such dislocation to be profoundly dishonourable, creating a lesion in the memory (the songs, the breath, the nourishment and creativity) of that person’s descendents. Clearly relocating human remains to the landscape of their origin has political, financial and other implications and problems, but it is one HAD is addressing.

The issue of deaccession is also important to HAD and Paganism in general, for it raises the issue of reburial or what might be done with the thousands of bones (and other human remains) of British pagan origin no longer considered to be of scientific value. The document talks of the balance between the interests of science, archaeology, museums and education, and the tribal, cultural and religious communities for whom the human remains may be of importance.

In the draft document, it is stated, ‘Through consultation with the relevant statutory and religious authorities, reburial or respectful storage in designated, marked sites may satisfy requirements of the law and religious or civil tradition, and need not remove the remains altogether from the purview of scientific study in the future.’

Of course, repatriation of a direct descendent to an African tribe, just a few hundred years old, may be proved easily. However, genetic connection neither comes so easily nor is so relevant when we are dealing with ancient human remains (over 1000 or even 5000 years old) that may be deemed sacred to modern British Pagans. The document states, ‘If the remains can be identified to a particular extant faith or community, their views and beliefs on the treatment of human remains must be taken into account.’ HAD noted that these words do not fully recognize the sensitivities and religious perspectives alive in some British Paganisms. HAD is working on adjusting attitudes to include an understanding of our existing Pagan traditions as native religions that have naturally evolved over millennia, and are thus changed yet continue upon an ancient undying current.

Repeatedly in the draft document, the Church Archaeology Human Remains Working Group Report is referred to. This document presents established guidelines made between English Heritage and the Church of England (Council for the Care of Churches and the Cathedrals Fabric Commission). HAD are fully aware of this report and are making headway to create a similar document that appropriately relates to human remains and associated artifacts of clearly pagan provenance.

For those human remains that will stay in museums, the Code of Practice speaks about increasing the quality of and access to information, using internet sources and advisory groups from various cultural and religious bodies. The document also suggest improving access to the bones themselves. HAD intends to work with key museums to ensure that this is put into action, allowing the wider Pagan community fuller access and information about ancient pagan human remains and artifacts in their care.

During a meeting between HAD and the Drafting Group, the Chair expressed a lack of understanding as how or why bones or other remains retained their significance even when the ‘spirit left the body’. It was only when the non-dualistic world view of many animists and other Pagans was explained, together with notions of tribal song and the webs of land and ancestry, that he grasped the relevance, validity and importance not only of British Pagan sensitivities but those of Pagan traditions around the world, from the Hindu to the Inuit.

The final Code of Practice will be published later in 2005 but will immediately be sent out to its consultation groups, including HAD. We shall here publish a link to the document so that interested members of British Pagan faith communities might read it through. Please do not send comments direct to the DCMS; instead, send all comments to HAD, noting that all opinions and observations will contribute to our submitted document. It is intended that after just one year in place, the Code of Practice will be reviewed and amended in line with all the consultative groups’ comments.

The Code of Practice will not be legislation, but simply clear guidelines that museums will be asked to follow.

September 2005


UPDATE 10 October 2005

The final version of the DCMS Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums is now published. The pdf can be found at :

Through an error, the DCMS failed to list HAD as a consultative body in the document, but we have been assured that this will be amended on the online version.

As stated above, this report will be in place for a year, after which a review body will look at its effectiveness and any needs for revision. If you have comments on the report, please send them to HAD via our contact page, and we shall take them into consideration when we submit our comments for the review.