Care of Human Remains Policy

Human remains make up an important part of the collections vested in Wellcome Collection by its founder, Sir Henry Wellcome, who was a significant collector of medical material, antiquities, instruments, works of art, manuscripts, books and many other items over the course of his lifetime.

A substantial part of these collections have been on loan to the Science Museum since the 1970s, including over 500 human remains drawn from many different countries and dating from prehistoric times to the early 20th century. A list of these human remains has been published alongside this policy.

We consider that all human remains occupy a unique status in museums and collections and that they should be treated with respect and with high standards of care. We recognise that there are particular sensitivities around some remains, for example, those of the recently deceased or those that are from communities where ongoing retention and/or use of remains can run counter to cultural practices and beliefs.

We endorse the 2005 Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums [PDF 344KB] produced by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport Human Remains Code Drafting Group (“the DCMS Guidance”), on which the Trust was represented. This policy draws heavily on that guidance.

Structure, scope and review

This policy describes our approach to the care of human remains within its permanent collections, or within its care (e.g. items held by it on loan).

The policy is divided into the following eight sections:

1. Acquisition and loans

2. De-accessioning

3. Storage, conservation and collections management

4. Public display

5. Research

6. Inventories of collections

7. Claims

8. Contacts

The term “human remains” is used in this policy as it is in the DCMS Guidance, namely to refer to bodies and parts of bodies of once-living people, osteological material (whole or part skeletons, individual bones or fragments of bone and teeth), soft tissue including organs and skin, embryos and slide preparations of human tissue. The term also extends to human remains that have been modified in some way through human skill and/or that are physically bound up with non-human material. It does not include hair and nails.

The policy will be reviewed periodically and may be revised from time to time, for example, to reflect changes to the DCMS Guidance, changes in the legal and regulatory environment (including the Human Tissue Act 2004) or other external developments.

If particular ethical issues arise in relation to any of the specific areas of this policy, we will be guided by the ethical principles in the DCMS guidance. It may also refer certain matters to its Standing Advisory Group on Ethics for further guidance.

1. Acquisition and loans

1.1. Wellcome Collection may acquire human remains from time to time where they are of potential value to its work, though human remains will normally only be newly acquired for the purposes of its public programmes, for example display. Usually these remains will be borrowed from other institutions. It would, however, only acquire remains where it is satisfied that provenance has been as clearly established as possible and that there is no suspicion of them having been acquired or subsequently transferred illicitly.

1.2. We will consider lending remains to other institutions for purposes that will include display or research, provided such activities are in line with all legal and regulatory requirements. Requests to borrow remains held in the care of the Science Museum on behalf of Wellcome Collection will be handled by the Science Museum.

1.3. When considering a request for a loan, we will take account of the sensitivity of the human remains and will not normally loan out remains that are subject to a pending claim.

2. De-accessioning

2.1. Wellcome Collection may de-accession human remains in its collections for a number of reasons, including where there are health and safety problems relating to the remains; where there are irresolvable difficulties associated with storage requirements; or where it is desirable to reduce duplication within its collections or to transfer them to another collection where they will be more productively utilised. Before de-accessioning human remains, we will first seek to establish whether there are any genealogical or cultural communities who might wish to make a claim for the return or burial of the remains. Where potential claimants do exist, we will consider whether it would be practicable and appropriate to contact and consult with them where appropriate to ascertain whether a claim might be made.

2.2. If the remains are to be disposed of, they will be disposed of safely and respectfully and, in the case of burials from Christian contexts, Guidance for best practice for treatment of human remains excavated from Christian burial grounds in England [PDF] produced by the Church of England and English Heritage in 2005 and updated in 2017.

2.3. Requests for return or burial of remains in our collections will be considered on their merits with reference to the criteria laid out in the DCMS guidance and the ethical framework in that guidance. Further information on claims handling, and how to make claims, can be found in section seven.

3. Storage, conservation and collections management

3.1. Human remains in our collections will be stored and managed in appropriate conditions, consistent with their special status, in keeping with the DCMS guidance and good museum practice.

4. Public display

4.1. Wellcome Collection considers that there is a strong educational value and high level of public interest in displays featuring human remains. The display of remains in certain contexts can provide stimulating opportunities for learning about and understanding past lives, cultures, beliefs and practices as well as insights into medical science, past and present. Careful thought will always be given to the reasons for and context in which remains are displayed.

4.2. The potential sensitivities of both source communities and potential audiences must be actively considered when human remains – and artefacts incorporating human remains or tissues – are used for display.

4.3. Consideration will also be given to how to prepare visitors to view remains in exhibitions put on by Wellcome Collection, and to warn those who may not wish to see them.

4.4. Human remains in our collections that have been identified as particularly sensitive or are the subject of a pending claim will not normally be displayed or made available for display, though requests may be considered in exceptional cases.

4.5. We do not display human remains that require a Public Display licence under the Human Tissue Act 2004.

5. Research

5.1. All human materials at Wellcome Collection are considered either closed for 100 years (licensable relevant material) or by appointment (material from living donors and human remains older than 100 years) under Wellcome Collection’s standard research access management framework. Any research access request (for example, for historical research into the provenance of remains) will be considered on a case-by-case basis by Wellcome Collection’s Access Advisory Panel. We acknowledge that, given the unique status of human remains, historical research work needs to be undertaken with due consideration of the ethical issues in particular, with an awareness that the work is sensitive to some people and communities in certain circumstances. In some cases, this sensitivity may be such that the public benefit will lie in withholding the human remains, rather than making them available for research. Access to the human remains in our collections will, therefore, only be approved where applicants can demonstrate that access is in the public interest and would not infringe the rights of any individuals mentioned in the material.

5.2. Human remains that are the subject of a pending claim will not normally be made available for historical research not connected to the claim, though requests may be considered in exceptional cases.

5.3. Human remains requiring a licence under the Human Tissue Act 2004 are not available for research in connection with disorders or the functioning of the human body, which applies to material from the living and the deceased.

5.4. Requests for access to remains held in the care of the Science Museum on behalf of Wellcome Collection will be handled initially by the Museum.

5.5. We will continue to work with the Science Museum to increase understanding of the research potential of the human remains in its care and to develop a more specific framework within which requests for research – and in particular for any destructive sampling – can be prioritised and decided.

6. Inventories of collections

6.1. We are committed to maximising the availability of information about its collections, subject to personal privacy considerations and cultural sensitivities, and to this end will publish a list of the remains held at the Science Museum on its website.

6.2. Information on remains displayed in exhibitions at Wellcome Collection will normally be accessible through the exhibition catalogue, website and other interpretative devices.

6.3. Further provenance information on certain remains may be available in the Science Museum and the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum archives (the latter of which are available for reference in the library at Wellcome Collection).

7. Claims

7.1. General

Wellcome Collection is committed to being open and transparent about claims in relation to human remains in its collections, including claims for their return to relatives or communities of origin. We will seek to ensure that it responds to claims as constructively as possible and that dialogue with claimants and potential claimants is as equitable as possible. All requests from cultural groups to access remains will be treated with sensitivity.

7.2. Procedure for making a claim

(i) Initial contact
Enquiries and requests in relation to claims for remains in our collections should be submitted in writing to the Director of Wellcome Collection. Requests should include as much information as possible about the human remains being claimed, the individual or community submitting the claim, the reasons for making the claim and the evidence that substantiates the claim.

(ii) Acknowledgement
The claim will be formally acknowledged in writing and an indication given of how long it is likely to take for us to consider the claim and who is expected to be consulted in this process. The time taken will in part depend on the quantity and quality of the information submitted with the claim. At this point we will identify a case officer who will act as a single point of contact for claimants and other interested parties throughout the process and all enquiries should be submitted to him/her.

(iii) Claims handling
Staff handling the claim will consider the information provided and gather further information, either from the claimants, or other sources, as necessary. We may seek independent advice from experts on ethical, scientific or other issues, where appropriate, to help guide it in its decision-making.

Throughout this process, we will endeavour to maintain an open and ongoing dialogue with the claimants.

(iv) Criteria for assessing claims and decision-making
Claims will be considered on their merits with reference to the criteria laid out in the DCMS guidance (see Annexe A), summarised as follows:

  • the status of those making the request and continuity with the remains
  • the cultural, spiritual and religious significance of the remains
  • the age of the remains
  • how the remains were originally removed and acquired
  • the status of the remains within the collection
  • the scientific, educational and historical value of the remains to Wellcome Collection and the public
  • how the remains have been used in the past
  • the future of the remains if returned
  • records of the remains
  • other options
  • policy of the country of origin
  • precedent.

Claims, particularly for return or burial, will normally be decided by the Board of Governors of the Wellcome Trust, with the benefit of any internal or external advice they consider appropriate. In some cases, we may refer a decision to the Charity Commission for approval before proceeding.

(v) Outcome and follow-up
Once a decision has been made, a written report will be prepared explaining how the decision was reached. Claimants will be informed of the decision in writing and the decision will be published on the Wellcome Collection website.

The decision will be implemented promptly, in consultation with the claimant (and possibly other interested parties) where relevant.

8. Contacts

  • Director of Wellcome Collection, Gibbs Building, 215 Euston Road, London, NW1 2BE
  • Keeper of Medicine, Science Museum, Exhibition Road, London, SW7 2DD

July 2023

Annexe A

DCMS Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums: criteria for assessing claims, pp 26–29

A. The status of those making the request and continuity with remains

Genealogical descendants: If individuals can demonstrate a direct and close genealogical link to the human remains, their wishes would generally be given very strong weight. However, consideration should be given as to whether they are the only people in this category and if they are not, whether there was any risk of harm to others in this category if the request being made were granted.

There may be exceptional cases where remains would not be returned to genealogical descendants. However, it is expected that in the majority of cases they would be, or that consent would be required from the descendants for any further use by a museum.

In practice, individuals who died more than 100 years ago may have many descendants from more than one community, so genealogical descent alone may not be the only criteria considered.

In such cases, the museum will need to assess the range of potential claimants and gauge how the interests of these individuals might be balanced with any other relevant considerations. The ethical principles will help to guide museums through these cases. The principles of avoiding harm (to the particular individuals concerned) and solidarity (seeking co-operation and consensus) are likely to be particularly important here.

Cultural community of origin: The concept of a community can be a difficult one to define. The assumption is that human society is characterised by the creation of communities that individuals feel a part of and which take on a collective set of values, often identified by particular cultural behaviour. It is often far less easy to identify which particular cultural community, or part of a community, has the greatest authority in any particular instance.

When considering claims based on cultural links, museums will need to take care to verify that the group they are dealing with is the only potential claimant, or that, if it is not, the other potential claimants support them. For overseas claims, where there may be doubt on this, advice should generally be sought from the national government concerned. It might also be normal to look for precedents for how a community has acted in the past.

For a community to be recognised and their claim considered it would generally be expected that continuity of belief, customs or language could be demonstrated between the claimants and the community from which the remains originate. Cultures evolve and change through time but these changes can normally be recorded and demonstrated. The relationship between the location of the claimant community and the origin of the remains might also be a consideration.

It would be unusual to accept a claim for return from a group who did not either occupy the land from which the remains came, practice the same religious beliefs, share the same culture or language, or could not demonstrate why this was no longer the case.

A museum will need to be assured that a sufficient link does exist and that the group they are dealing with has sufficient authority to make a community claim.

A clear demonstration of a continuity of association between the claimant and the remains will be of great importance in dealing with any claim.

The country of origin: In some cases a nation may make a claim for remains, either on behalf of a particular community or for all of its nationals. Such a claim would be considered along similar lines to claims based on cultural community.

B. The cultural, spiritual and religious significance of the remains

Where claims are made it would be expected, but not essential, for the claimant group to show that human remains and their treatment have a cultural, religious or spiritual significance to their community. The claim may be being made purely on cultural, spiritual or religious grounds. The claimant group may show that remains were removed without the permission of their community, or at least outside its laws and normal practices. Further the claimant may show that the correct "laying to rest" of remains is of religious or spiritual importance.

The remains might also be of a particular cultural significance to a community, for example as being from an important family or representing war dead, or victims of a particular event, such as a massacre.

Demonstration through some or all of the ways above, of strong continuous cultural, spiritual or religious significance of particular human remains, will add weight to a claim. This is particularly so in cases where there is clearly a risk of harm to the individuals or communities concerned, for example, where the continued holding of the remains by a museum perpetuates a strong feeling of grief among claimants.

C. The age of remains

The vast majority of claims that have been made for return have concerned the remains of overseas people who died within the last 100–300 years. This corresponds most closely to the period when expansion took place by European powers, with its subsequent effect on Indigenous peoples – a period that does not go back further than 500 years. It is also the period in which it is more likely for a close genealogical link to be made between the living and the dead.

Archaeological and historical study has shown that it is very difficult to demonstrate clear genealogical, cultural or ethnic continuity far into the past, although there are exceptions to this. For these reasons it is considered that claims are unlikely to be successful for any remains over 300 years old, and are unlikely to be considered for remains over 500 years old, except where a very close and continuous geographical, religious, spiritual and cultural link can be demonstrated. Some cultures put more emphasis on association with land that has a cultural, spiritual or religious importance and less on relative age. In such cases, the chronological age of the remains may be less significant.

D. How the remains were originally removed and acquired

There are many cases of human remains being removed and studied without dispute. There are other instances, particularly during the 19th and early 20th century, of remains being removed against the will of individuals, families and communities.

E. The status of the remains within the museum/legal status of institution

The museum should be sure of the exact legal status of the remains within their collections and that they have the right to make decisions over their fate.

The museum should identify the remains being claimed and then ascertain why they are being held and how they have been, and are likely to be, used:

1. Are the remains fully documented and the information about them publicly available?

2. Do they have continued, reasonably foreseeable, research potential?

3. Do they form part of a documented access strategy?

4. Are they curated according to the very highest standards?

5. Are they curated in such a way as their long-term preservation is assured?

6. Can the long-term security of the remains be guaranteed within the museum?

F. The scientific, educational and historical value of the remains to the museum and the public

Many human remains have undoubted potential to further the knowledge and understanding of humanity through research, study and display. In considering a request for return of human remains, a museum should carefully assess their value and reasonably foreseeable potential for research, teaching and display and should ensure that specialists with appropriate knowledge and experience have assessed this.

If the remains do have value for research, teaching and display, a museum should decide whether this can override other factors, particularly such as the wishes and feelings of genealogical descendants or cultural communities.

G. How the remains have been used in the past

In considering the future of remains, consideration may be given to what use they had been put in the past. Evidence of extensive previous research use would normally support an argument for scientific value.

H. The future of the remains if returned

The care of remains, if returned, also requires consideration. Some requests might require re-burial or removal from the public arena, whereas some claimants may be prepared to keep the remains in such a way that future research, teaching or even display is possible.

I. Records of the remains

Whether a record of the remains exists, or can be made before return, might be a factor in making a decision.

J. Other options

There may be more than two options when a claim is made. Museums should explore further alternatives if this helps in reaching a consensus. For example, it may be possible that remains would stay in the museum, but a claimant group would gain a level of control over their future use.

K. Policy of the country of origin

Some nation states have developed domestic legislation or policy to govern claims for the return of remains. Museums would normally expect to be aware of any policies of the national government from which a claim originated. It is worth considering how a claim would be resolved if made in the country from which the claimants originate, as well as the expectations of the claimant based on the practice in their country of origin.

L. Precedent

Claims will generally be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. However, it would be expected that a museum would review past cases of claims made to it, or claims of a similar kind made to other museums and their outcomes, as well as giving some thought to the impact of any decision on future claims.