28 February 2014

Curating Human Remains in UK Museums workshop

Human Remains Subject Specialist Network and Museum Ethnographers Group
Wednesday 26 February 2014, Royal College of Surgeons, London

More than 30 curators, conservators, archaeologists and others came together in the appropriate environment of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) for a workshop on curating human remains in UK museums. The session was organised by the Human Remains Subject Specialist Network (SSN) in partnership with the Museum Ethnographers Group. Contributors included some of the most experienced and specialist practitioners in the field.

The first two presentations, led by Margaret Clegg from the Human Remains Unit at the Natural History Museum (NHM) and Myra Giesen from Newcastle University, provided a useful introduction to the ethical and legislative framework surrounding the curation of remains. Myra, in discussing the Human Tissue Act and 2005 DCMS‘Guidance’ document and drawing on her experience of advising North American museums in NAGPRA compliance, had one key message: ‘Read the Law!’. Heather Bonney (NHM) and Carina Phillips (RCS) talked about the challenges of collections management and documentation regarding human remains in their respective institutions.

In the afternoon conservator Chris Collins (NHM) outlined the general principles of conservation regarding human remains (respect; minimal intervention; acknowledgement of stakeholder wishes) before discussing a fascinating project the NHM had been involved in. Working for the Rwandan government, NHM conservators provided technical assistance to the process of creating several memorials dedicated to victims of the 1994 genocide, which included the remains of some of these. The session was a useful reminder of the vulnerability of human remains to political interest and of how ‘local’ interests concerning remains may differ significantly from any ‘national’ agenda. Following Chris, Gill Comerford (NHM) talked about best practice storage techniques and materials. While she acknowledged the greater resources that the NHM can command in this respect than most other museums, there was much interest amongst participants in the conservation-grade materials and packaging used. The final session was a practical session led by Rebecca Redfern and Jelena Bekvalac (both Museum of London) which gave participants a chance to appropriately repack archaeological human remains.

Workshop participants during the practical session

The workshop drew participants from a wide range of disciplines. The fact that places filled so quickly – as did a waiting list – evidences a sectoral need and interest in building confidence in curating human remains. After a period of relative inactivity, the Human Remains SSN is now engaged in drawing up a constitution so that it can offer a more regular programme of events and activity. In the meantime its organisers are keen to support UK museum staff working with human remains in whatever way they can. Contact details can be found on the SSN website as, shortly, will copies of presentations given on the day.

Helen Mears
MEG Events Officer& Keeper of World Art, Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

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