A Cathedral to Science

A few days after touring the British Museum, I rode a red double-decker bus west to the Natural History Museum (of course choosing to sit on the top deck). Like almost all museums in London, the British Museum and the Natural History Museum are free to the public. This fact stands in stark contrast with the steep fees that always seem to accompany tours of similar institutions in the United States. Entering through the staff and visitor entrance, I sat down with the head of the Human Remains Unit to discuss the museum’s collections and policies regarding the display, storage, research, and repatriation of their specimens. After a wonderful interview I explored the rest of the museum, first stopping in the human biology exhibit to take note of the human femur, brain and spinal chord, and complete skeleton on display there. I subsequently made my way through the “Our Place in Evolution” exhibit, which features primarily casts of famous remains located in other museums with about six real specimens belonging to the NHM scattered throughout. Before heading off to explore the rest of the exhibits, I paused to take pictures of the unbelievable architecture that brings such character to the Central Hall of the museum. Built long before electricity, the building is lit from above by large windows that flood the rooms with natural light. The head of the Human Remains Unit explained to me that many years ago there was no set closing time of the museum, as it varied with the setting of the sun. With its ornate architecture and vaulted ceiling, she affectionately calls the building a “cathedral to science.”

   

After my time at the two museums I was better equipped with a more thorough understanding of British museum policy and general opinions regarding human remains. One aspect of these institutions that sets them apart from the rest of the museums on my itinerary is the fact that they house massive collections spanning all geographic regions and time periods. Like many other museums, such The Field Museum, they actually only display less than 1% of what they own – the rest stays tucked away in storage. For example, the Natural History Museum has around 20,000 sets of human remains on site, but only a very small handful are on display.

   

The British government has passed specific laws to address the handling of human remains by entities such as museums and both the British Museum and the NHM abide by these protocols. The written policies established by both institutions comply with the recommendations laid out by the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) in the October 2005 Code of Practice. This code was a follow-up to the Human Tissue Act of 2004 in an effort to provide guidance to museums with human remains in their collections.

The British Museum and the Natural History Museum allow outside parties to access the remains – whether scientific researchers or affiliated cultural groups – with the completion of detailed protocol and appropriate approval. Both institutions receive requests for repatriation from cultural groups claiming ancestral ties to specimens in their collections. Through collaboration with a wide range of experts in the field, they must weigh the interests of these groups against the scientific potential of the specimens and the possible benefit to society as a whole.