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Change in the law regarding human remains in Britain’s Museums

Section 47 of the Human Tissue Act 2004 [1] came into force in the UK last week. Although most of the act deals with storage of human tissue by hospitals, this specific section covers a change in the law that gives nine specified museums the discretionary right to de-accession human remains in their collections if it is believed that these remains were less than one thousand years old at the time the act came into force. In short, museums will be allowed to return items such as Aboriginal remains to their place of origin, without being prevented from doing so by the Museum’s Act 1964, which this act now supersedes (where human remains are involved).
Whether or not any human remains are returned as a result of this change in the law remains to be seen. However, no longer can institutions avoid the issue by suggest that they would love to return the items if they were allowed to.
Gradually cases such as this, that of the Feldmann paintings [2] & the Benevento Missal [3]. are highlighting how flawed the Museums Act is in its anti de-accessioning provisions. Rather than tacking individual issues (human remains, Nazi looting) as they become a problem, surely the whole act needs to be reconsidered as a whole & rewritten in a way that is more appropriate for the values of today’s society?

Sydney Morning Herald [4]

UK museums to return Aboriginal remains
October 6, 2005 – 8:54PM

British museums have welcomed a change in law that is expected to lead to Aboriginal remains being returned from their collections to Australia.

Implementation of the 2004 Human Tissue Act will allow nine museums to repatriate remains, superseding the British Museums Act of 1964 which forbade such returns even if the museums believed the remains to be of little scientific value.

The new law allows for the return of items considered to be less than 1,000 years old.

Aboriginal groups in Australia will now have applications for such returns actively considered.

The Natural History Museum, which has the most extensive collection in Britain of about 400 items – ranging from skeletons to hair clippings – welcomed the change.

However it said claims would be balanced against the scientific value of the items.

“In each case, the interests and wishes of the claimant and the importance of the item to scientific research will be taken into consideration,” the Natural History Museum said in a statement.

“(The museum) believes its unique collection will continue to be of immense value to scientific research in the future for the benefit of society.”

The British Museum said it also approved of the effect of the new law.

“We have to wait to receive claims for the material,” a British Museum spokesperson said.

“The Museum welcomes the legislation because it will allow us to fully consider those claims we do get.”

Much of the collection of Aboriginal remains were taken from Australian by scientists and explorers from the early 19th century into the 20th century.

The genesis of the law came in 2000, when British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Australian counterpart John Howard made a joint declaration to increase efforts to repatriate human remains to Australian indigenous groups.

“This announcement is the right response to the claims of indigenous peoples, particularly in Australia, for the return of ancestral remains,” British Culture Minister David Lammey said.

© 2005 AAP