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The British Government’s Working Group on Human Remains

On 14 November 2003, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) of the British Government received “The Working Group on Human Remains Report“.

The Working Group (HRWG) was established in May 2001 by the then Minister for the Arts, the Right Honourable Alan Howarth CBE MP, under the chairmanship of Norman Palmer, Barrister, Professor of the Law of Art and Cultural Property at University College London, etc, with the following terms of reference:

* to examine the current legal status of human remains within the collections of publicly funded museums and galleries in the United Kingdom;
* to examine the powers of museums and galleries governed by statute to de-accession, or otherwise release from their possession, human remains within their collections and to consider the desirability and possible form of legislative change in this area;
* to consider the circumstances in which material other than, but associated with, human remains might properly be included within any proposed legislative change in respect of human remains; and related matters.

The DCMS website states, “The Report – to the Minister for the Arts – deals with the current legal status of human remains within the collections of publicly funded Museums and Galleries in England and Wales.

“This is a document by an independent advisory committee, and so does not necessarily reflect Government policy. However, the Working Group on Human Remains Terms of Reference state that the report will form the basis of a consultation document. The DCMS propose to issue this early in the new year, including full costings. The results of this consultation will inform the Government’s response.

The DCMS site lists a number of reports including the Report itself together with several associated documents; all are in pdf. They include submissions received by the Working Group.

The Working Group recommended amendment of statutes governing museums to empower then to relinquish human remains – a recommendation supported by The Natural History Museum – and also that externally approved procedures for the determination of claims regarding retention and treatment of human remains be put in place. It also recommended that a national Human remains Advisory Panel be established. The Natural History Museum’s response on this is on their site.

In part, the response states, “The Natural History Museum supports the Report’s leading recommendation for a change in legislation to give Museum Trustees the ability to make discretionary decisions about the future of human remains in its collections. The Museum also supports the recommendation for an independent licensing authority, with an associated code of practice, to ensure high standards of care for collections and fair and transparent procedures for considering requests for repatriation.

Sir Neil Chalmers, Director of the Museum, said ‘These are very complex and difficult questions. A change to the law, together with a clear ethical framework for decision-making, would enable us to conduct more open discussions with claimants, which we welcome. We recognise the concerns of indigenous communities around the world, and need to weigh this up against the great value to humanity of holding our collections and the important research they support.

‘The Natural History Museum’s human remains collection is used by Museum researchers and scientists from many other countries for vital research into human origins, health, diversity and history…

The Museum is concerned that some of the detailed recommendations of the Report, including an elaborate regulatory system, are unnecessarily bureaucratic and in practice unworkable. The Museum is also concerned that the Report does not fully recognise the undoubted public benefits deriving from medical, scientific and other research.’

The Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) also issued a statement shortly after the publication of the Report. Chairman of ATSIC’s Culture, Rights and Justice Board Committee, Commissioner Rodney Dillon said in a statement entitled, “UK Repatriation Report a Welcome Step – But Action Must Follow”

“ATSIC’s bid to secure the return of remains of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples held in British museums has moved forward with the release of a key report backing the repatriation of remains taken without consent.

“The recommendations… are a significant acknowledgement of the merit of our calls for the repatriation of remains held in institutional collections.

“This report is a step in the right direction towards achieving true justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

“It is also a step forward for the long-running campaign by ATSIC and other Indigenous organisations seeking the return of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ remains.”

The World Archaeological Congress (WAC) has issued a statement supporting the recommendations of the WGHR Report.

“Archaeologists worldwide welcome the recommendation of the removal of legislation which has previously prevented the return of mortal remains to their descendents and communities” said Dr Claire Smith, President of WAC, the international association for archaeologists.”‘The enforced and involuntary donation of an Indigenous person’s body to science in this way, going directly against their religious beliefs and practices, is not acceptable. We welcome the Working Group’s recommendation that museums should only hold human remains with the consent of the dead person’s descendants.”

WAC support the views in the report “there is little question that the original taking of these remains was often morally, if not legally, wrong”; that the refusal to return bones is preventing Indigenous people “from fulfilling a solemn obligation the neglect of which causes acute pain”; and that “until this wrong is redressed there will be no closure in respect of past injustices and an arguable enduring violation of fundamental human rights”.