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The Duckworth Policy on the Curation and Conservation of Human Remains

In the last few years, there has been an increasing concern regarding the conditions under which human remains are kept and used by museums and universities, and in particular, about the principles that govern the practice of de-accession of material, whether for reburial, repatriation, or disposal. This concern culminated in the publication of the document Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) in October 2005, which sets out a series of recommendations on best practice regarding human remains in museum and university collections in the UK, and complements the provisions of the Human Tissue Act 2004 on the care of human remains older than 100 years.

Human remains represent an important element in the study of humans and their societies, much like archaeological and ethnographic artefacts, differing from the latter only in the extent to which there is an overlying psychological and cultural significance assigned to material that was once part of a living human being. This has created a tension between those who object to the use of human remains in science (particularly of those remains which they consider as belonging to their kin), and those who see the scientific importance of the study of human remains to generally override such individual or cultural views.

It is the position of the Duckworth Laboratory, as well as its parent institutions the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies and the University of Cambridge, that the study of human remains provides unique and invaluable information on human evolution and history, human biological diversity, the history of disease, as well as cultural differences in relation to the body, death, burial and belief systems. As such, their preservation in museum and university collections should be protected. Equally, the Laboratory recognises that this position may not apply to all the human remains in its care, and that a general code of practice would be beneficial to all. With this view, the Duckworth Laboratory made a number of presentations and written contributions to the DCMS Working Group on Human Remains between 2001 and 2003, and held meetings with the then Minister of Science (D Sainsbury) and Minister for Culture (T Jowell). As a result of the Working Group’s recommendations, the DCMS published a consultation document (The Care of Historic Human Remains) in 2004, to which the Director of the Laboratory submitted a response. This consultation led to the realisation that a formal national Code of Practice for the care of human remains was necessary. A working group was established by the DCMS in early 2005 to draft this code. The views of the Duckworth Laboratory were represented in this working group by Prof. Foley, and as such it endorses the Code of Practice established by that group and published in October 2005 (Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums). Following these recommendations, the Duckworth Laboratory has extended and adjusted its policy on human remains, set out in the document The Duckworth Laboratory Policy on the Curation & Conservation of Human Remains.

Dr Marta Mirazón Lahr
Director of the Duckworth Laboratory
Cambridge, March 2011



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