Introduction to human remains in museums
This introductory guide is a broad overview of the complex topic of human remains in museums. We have created 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 prepare you if you encounter these issues while running a museum.
Why display human remains?
Museums are a great source of information and education. It’s important to display human remains for ethical reasons, such as education, rather than simply to attract audiences. Museums have a responsibility to care for these objects and respect the wishes of any associated donors.
Understanding the issues
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.
Bound-up material and funerary objects are items other than human remains which are connected to the remains in a way that means they are considered 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:
- Rigour. Act with appropriate knowledge, skill, and care so that you can justify your decisions.
- Honesty and integrity. Declare conflicts of interest and show transparency in sharing knowledge.
- 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 importance for research and emotional value means that they require the highest standards of collections management.
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’re satisfied that:
- They’re held lawfully
- Provenance is clearly established
- There’s no suspicion of illicit trade
- They’re of potential value to the museum or wider research community
Ensure the same standards apply for any museum that you’re 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.
Remains should be separated into their own 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.
Aim for minimal intervention when conserving these items. Only perform work when absolutely necessary and avoid treatments that cause contamination or damage.
Public display and access
Human remains can help to educate visitors on science and history.
Surveys show that most visitors are comfortable with, and often expect to see human remains as part of museum displays.
Consider these questions when thinking about the display of human remains:
- 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’ll allow. Handling can damage items and risks offending religious and cultural sensibilities surrounding human remains.
Read this full guide for information on allowing researchers access to human remains.
Museums that hold human remains should make a complete record of their holdings. This should be accessible to the public.
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.
- Anatomy Act 1984
- Data Protection Act 2001
- Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002
- Human Tissue (Scotland) Act 2006
- DCMS 2003: Department of Media Culture and Sport, Report of the Working Group on Human Remains.
- DCMS 2005: Department of Culture, Media and Sport, Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums
- DCMS Guidance for the care of human remains in museums (2019)
- Museum Ethnographers Group 1994: ‘Professional guidelines concerning the storage,
display, interpretation and return of human remains in ethnographical collections in United
Kingdom Museums’, in Journal of Museum Ethnography 6 (Oct 1994), 22-24
- Museum Association: Code of Ethics
- World Archaeological Congress 1989: The Vermillion Accord, Archaeological Ethics and the Treatment of the Dead, A statement of principles agreed by Archaeologists and Indigenous peoples at the World Archaeological Congress
- Human Remains Subject Specialist Network
- Historic Environment Scotland
- Museums Galleries Scotland: Creating and improving stores
- Museums Association: Suppliers directory
- Institute of Conservation (ICON) Conservation Register
- Collections Trust: Advice on marking and labelling museum objects
- The British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology (BABAO): List of institutions receiving skeletal collections