Conferences: A chance to flesh out bones of body politics

October 1, 2004

In uur new monthly guide to conferences taking place around the world, Harriet Swain looks over the agenda of a symposium on the use and display of human remains in museums.

Dead bodies can be relied on to spark lively debates because they cannot speak for themselves, says Hedley Swain, the head of early London history and collections at the Museum of London and the organiser of a two-day international symposium on how museums should deal with human remains.

The symposium, to be held at the Museum of London later this month, will bring together experts from Australia, South Africa, America and Europe to discuss the ethical, political and cultural considerations of the use of human remains. It will examine the position of the Church, public opinion and science, and explore attitudes towards war graves and the display of human remains in the media as well as in museums.

Swain says that much debate on the issue in Britain is influenced by discussions abroad. "You could say we are behind because these things have been debated far more and for longer in North America, Australia and South Africa," he says. "Or it could be that we haven't needed to have these debates because we haven't had indigenous people demanding skeletons."

But the issue has been pushed to the fore by three recent consultations.

One, which will close on the eve of the conference, is being conducted by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. It is based on a report last November by the Working Group on Human Remains, headed by Norman Palmer, professor of commercial law at University College London. It has been asking whether laws relating to the holding of human remains by UK museums are sufficient; whether museums holding human remains should be subject to a code of practice; whether the Government should set up a Human Remains Advisory Panel to mediate claims for repatriation; and how museums should handle such claims.

A consultation by the Church of England, which has recently ended, explored how to deal with archaeological work on human remains buried on its land, while another Government consultation has considered whether new legislation is needed on exhumation of bodies from burial grounds.

The Human Tissue Bill, drafted after the public outcry that followed revelations that children's organs had been retained for research at Alder Hey and Bristol hospitals, is also likely to affect museum policies. In addition, legislation is going through that will allow repatriation of remains by museums now prevented by law from splitting up national collections.

Maurice Davies, deputy director of the Museums Association and a member of the DCMS and the Church of England working groups, says the conference will be a useful forum for discussing the practical issues raised by all these recent developments and for setting them in context.

He supports the DCMS recommendation that there should be a common policy towards demands for human remains to be returned. He suggests that if a major holder of remains, such as the National History Museum, repatriates just a few once the legislation allows it, future discussions with claimant communities could be transformed.

Swain says he will not be surprised if in ten years there is much more emphasis on reburial and on institutions justifying their need to hold human remains. But he argues that it is important not to get carried away.

The Museum of London's 17,000 skeletons, for example, are those of "anonymous, ancient or historical Londoners for whom nobody is making cultural or political claims", he says. The Museum of London asked its visitors for their thoughts and found that 80 to 90 per cent of those surveyed were comfortable seeing human remains on display, a practice that is now virtually unheard of in North America.

Swain says he is "relatively comfortable" with his museum's skeleton collection. "They are important scientifically and have the potential to tell us about the past, present and future, but if we find people who, because of their religious beliefs, find it abhorrent that skeletons should be on display, we have to accept that." He says: "As an archaeologist who has handled and stored and dealt with human remains for 20 years, I have never psychologically felt I was in the presence of a dead person."

"The Politics of Human Remains and Museum Practice: Ethics, Research, Policy and Display", an international symposium organised by the Museum of London, Museum in Docklands, London, October 30-31.

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