UK museums can now return human remains

The shift in policy follows over 30 recent claims for restitution

Nine UK national museums, including the British Museum and the Natural History Museum, have now been given powers to deaccession human remains, under the Human Tissue Act. Culture minister David Lammy described this as “the right response to the claims of indigenous peoples, particularly in Australia, for the return of ancestral remains.” In recent years there have been 33 requests for restitution: 11 from Tasmanian Aboriginals, 10 from New Zealand Maoris, 6 from Australian Aboriginals (including one with Tasmanian Aboriginals), five from American communities and two others.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport last month published “Guidance for the care of human remains in museums”, setting out how claims should be handled. It points out that human remains have “a key role in museum research and practice”, with the potential to make major contributions to the furtherance of knowledge. But “some human remains in museum collections were acquired in ways that would be deemed unacceptable today”, often leaving individuals and communities “deeply distressed”. Requests concerning the appropriate care or return of human remains “should be resolved by individual museums on a case-by-case basis”. This will lead to different approaches: the British Museum, for instance, has been much more open towards considering restitution than the Natural History Museum. A human remains Advisory Service is to be set up to provide technical expertise to museums.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 163 November 2005