Burying the evidence

A report by the UK government's 'Human Remains Working Group' shrouds history in mystery, to the detriment of science.

Tiffany Jenkins

Topics Culture

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Over the past decade repatriation departments have been set up in museums across America, Australia, Canada and New Zealand to return human remains to their places of origin. While research on human remains can reveal information about historic patterns of migration, lifestyle and disease – a substantial amount of energy, time and money has instead been committed to burying the evidence.

International researchers travelled to study skeletons in UK museums – but this now looks set to change. The Human Remains Working Group, appointed by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), recently issued a report that threatens the future of the investigation of human remains in the UK.

The majority report (so named because the group’s only scientist refused to accept its verdict) has issued the following recommendations:

— The law should be changed to allow museums to release remains;

–All institutions holding remains must be licensed by the Human Tissue Authority;

— A panel of ‘independent experts’ should be appointed to oversee claims, as well as other issues relating to the remains, including storage, handling, treatment and use.

While the report talks of conciliation, closure and respect, its implications will be severe, forceful and far-reaching. As Robert Foley, director of the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies at the University of Cambridge, told me: ‘It is the most extreme set of recommendations yet.… The breadth and looseness of the recommendations are a dangerous precedent.’

At first sight, these recommendations could be worse. The committee does not suggest that return should be mandatory; it would like to keep this question open to review. For the moment, regulations are restricted to remains from between the years 1500 and 1946. But these regulations do threaten all remains in UK museums and educational collections, whether they are claimed by campaigners or not. It is not just about return – the new rules will inhibit the research of remains in many other ways.

For example, institutions will have to research the provenance of all remains, and proactively contact any possible ‘relations’ to discuss the remains and consult on their future. The idea of close relatives’ remains being examined under a microscope is an emotional one. In recognition of this, the Duckworth laboratory in Cambridge already says that it will ‘return any individual skeletons or skulls of named individuals if their close kin should want them’ (1).

However, reading through the report, it is clear that the Human Remains Working Group isn’t just talking about remains of individuals who could be known as Great Grandma. The affiliation of remains, as defined by the committee, extends ‘beyond families’ ties’ to someone from the same ‘country, culture or belief group’ – in sum, anyone who might fall into the category of ‘cultural descendants’ (2).

The committee employs the broadest possible definition of descendants: ‘There is a risk that placing exclusive emphasis on close family and direct genealogical association fails to accord proper recognition to cultural diversity, by attaching predominant value to local or Western notions of kinship and insufficient value to other belief systems.’ (3) So almost any group, nation or organisation would be able to assert their ‘kinship’ to a skeleton, on the basis of their own cultural beliefs.

These regulations will raise serious problems for museums and educational institutions working on remains. As Robert Foley explained: ‘This would require a great level of bureaucracy which would be a major burden on research. And it raises uncertainties about what we are and are not allowed to do.’ One factor is the sheer amount of time dedicated to researching the provenance of material and contacting possible descendants – time and money that could be spent on productive research.

But another factor is the message that this policy sends out – it effectively suggests to all and sundry that scientific research is not a priority, and that science should be put second to mystical kinds of belief. The panel of experts that will oversee the treatment of remains, for example, will explicitly not include any scientist or researcher who works on the remains – but it will include those ‘versed in belief systems’. The panel will be akin to a new high priesthood guarding the sacred relics.

Under the working group’s recommendations, institutions will have to examine how the bones came into their collection. This is probably the most alarming part of the report. In order for research on the remains to be permitted, the key criterion is: was ‘consent’ given? The aim is that consent is the founding principle for all museum holdings of human remains, and that no distinctions should be drawn between classes of institutions or between past and future holdings.

The report spells out that ‘no institution shall retain, or perform any other act in relation to, human remains where it knows or has compelling reason to believe’ either that ‘the original removal of the remains occurred without the consent of the deceased person or that person’s close family’; or that ‘the present retention or other proposed act is without the consent of’ close family, direct genealogical descendants, or others of comparative responsibility within the deceased person’s religion or culture.

The importance of consent about the fate of dead bodies and organs is a contemporary concern. It is also one that has recently been redefined in the wake of the scandal at the Alder Hey hospital in Liverpool in 1999, when deceased children’s organs were found to have been retained without their parents’ knowledge. After Alder Hey, there was a turn towards employing a strict and bureaucratic standard for gaining consent. The problems with this process were highlighted on spiked by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick: ‘Should [relatives] be shown a video of a post-mortem? Should they be provided with a list of organs, so that they can put a tick by the spleen and a cross by the heart?’

But while the Retained Organs Commission only applies these notions of consent back to 1947, the Human Remains Working Group would like to apply contemporary notions of consent retrospectively, as far back as 1500. Consent from 500 years ago would not only be impossible to get – in addition, the whole idea of consenting for scientific research would be alien to people of that period.

Every time the question ‘is there consent?’ is asked, the message is that using human remains for research is a problem. The implication is that holding and studying human remains is something shameful, for which special permission has to be gained.

But what about those museums who can argue that the acquisition of their bones was proper and correct? Surely these institutions might be free to study the remains? Apparently not: the report says that while there might be cases where the museum acquired remains in good faith and according to contemporary ethical and legal standards, this could ‘never’ be considered to be consent.

Even in cases of unaffiliated or unwanted remains, the report leans on the side of return. While there are campaign groups who have made strong and vocal demands for return, there are as many people contacted by museums who have been uninterested in receiving boxes with bones of their possible ancestors. For example, the Horniman Museum in south London has yet to find a group who will accept some of the Aboriginal remains in its collection.

The report seems to suggest that descendants are in denial, arguing that: ‘Museums might wish to look critically at the political, economic and other reasons for any silence or absence of protest.’ It goes on: ‘A formal or apparent consent should be evaluated in terms of the ascertainable conditions prevailing at the time possession was vacated. Such evaluation might suggest that an apparent consent was vitiated by colonial dynamics of power or equivalent factors.’ (4)

It is certainly the case that, while remains were often exchanged willingly and commercially – some tribes even manufactured shrunken heads for collectors – there was an imbalance of power. But the assumption that nobody really would have wanted to release the remains, that secretly all were forced to give them up, surely cannot be justified.

Essentially, there are few situations in which the committee would accept that bones could be regarded objectively, as scientific evidence – instead preferring to see them as bestowed with spiritual value. The report is also asking museums today to orient its present activities around contemporary (and often false) assumptions about the past. Rather than researching remains and improving understanding for the future, it will mean dredging up the past provenance of remains.

The target of this report is the researchers and scientists working on the remains. The constant message is that remains are sacred and that research must be restrained by ‘respect’. Museums’ claims to scientific or historical objectivity are implicitly criticised. ‘All these human remains were once parts of living individuals’, says the report. ‘Museums have tended to objectify them, as this makes them easier to deal with, but many museum staff would now contend that society believes that human remains need special treatment.’ (5)

What is drummed home is the idea that no bone shall be regarded in an impersonal fashion. Every molecule, hair and fingernail is seen as sacred unless proven otherwise – and even then, it is thought that the sacred significance has not yet been discovered.

Where is the demand for the return of remains coming from? While there are strong claims from campaign groups, especially in America, Australia and New Zealand, the loudest voices arguing for the return, reburial and further restrictions on research are from the cultural left, including many within the museum profession. In fact, the emphasis on gaining ‘consent’ for remains is actually a reflection of the museum profession’s loss of faith in its own mission as the collectors, carers and studiers of artefacts. As Josie Appleton has argued on spiked, many of those involved in museum policy no longer believe in the value of scientific inquiry or in the very attempt to improve understanding (see Battle of the bones, by Josie Appleton).

Interestingly, a survey conducted for the committee found that a very small number of claims have been made to UK museums. Of the 60 museums holding human remains from overseas, only 13 have received requests for return. A total of 33 requests have been made, and some of these are repeat requests. However, the report suggests that these small numbers of claims should still be taken seriously: ‘While the total number of requests for return perhaps seems low at first sight…it is essential to recognise that in many cases the beliefs and emotions leading to individual claims are strong.’

The chair of the committee is Norman Palmer, professor of commercial law at University College London. He is an influential player in the area of repatriation, and has spoken out about the importance of Western society learning from ‘traditional beliefs’. After his trip to Tasmania’s Bruny Island to visit a reburial site, Palmer commented: ‘I was told that it would heighten my appreciation of what led to these tragic circumstances. And it is right. I approach this place with much humility. I gain a sense of the spirits and the ancestry here. If only we all had a sense of belonging like this.’ (7) In fact, the committee was packed with museum professionals and lawyers who were sympathetic to the idea that remains are sacred.

The report’s recommendations are very dangerous indeed. Science, anthropology and history have all benefited directly from research on bones. Human remains constitute ‘the material memory’ of past peoples and past times. They can tell us about evolution, patterns of migration and population variation – and are a unique source of information about the impact of different natural and socio-cultural environments.

Research on human remains has also been of practical benefit for society today – informing changes in dental, surgical and medical practice. What kind of society turns its back on the attempt to understand human history and to improve our lives? We are in for a seriously scary time, if research is to be deemed heretical and old bones worshipped.

Tiffany Jenkins is arts and society director at the Institute of Ideas

Read on:

Who owns human remains?, by Tiffany Jenkins, on openDemocracy

Battle of the bones, by Josie Appleton

Kennewick Man: burying the truth about America’s past, by Norman Levitt

spiked-issue: Museums and galleries

(1) Report of the Working Group on Human Remains, p60

(2) Report of the Working Group on Human Remains, p7

(3) Report of the Working Group on Human Remains, p113

(4) Report of the Working Group on Human Remains, p123

(5) Report of the Working Group on Human Remains, Appendices, p286

(6) Report of the Working Group on Human Remains, p13

(7) Pioneering journey home for Truganini, 30 May 2002

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Topics Culture


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