Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Natural History Museum


1.  The Natural History Museum operates within legal frameworks and has policies that put its opposition to illicit trade into practice. In particular, policies on acquisition, fieldwork, bioprospecting and on DNA-based studies confirm the need to work within national and international law.

  2.  For legally acquired material, the Museum is only able to dispose of objects from the collection within very limited circumstances, under the provisions of the British Museum Act 1963. This means that permanent return of items is exceptional.

  3.  There are a wide range of collaborative activities that are undertaken by the Museum and that play an important part in making the items in the collections available to people in their countries of origin. These activities may be seen as constructive alternatives to return, although it is important to say that the issue of return is not a topic of debate in the overwhelming majority of cases. In particular, information resources, loans of material, research and training collaboration, and scientific visits are frequently used.

  4.  The Museum holds human remains for scientific purposes. Some of these remains are likely to be the focus of continuing interest with respect to return. The Museum is convinced of the continuing value of scientific work in this field, but recognises the need to work with institutions and organisations in those countries where there is interest in return, in order to provide information on what the Museum does, to learn from the experience of others in this context, and to try to develop mutually acceptable solutions in areas where there are conflicting views.


  5.  The Natural History Museum's collection covers all elements of nature, having been developed continuously since 1753 and including items from all over the world. A central purpose of the Museum is to give access to the widest possible range of users to information and expertise on the natural world. Such access is given through publication, interpretation, information technology and other media, and in innovative exhibitions that use a selection of animals, plants, fossils and minerals.

  6.  For scientific users, including over 300 scientific staff in the Museum itself, the Museum provides the constantly developing systematic collection of around 68 million items, together with a comprehensive library of over one million volumes. The science of the Museum—systematics—is concerned with the discovery, description, naming and classification of living and fossil organisms, and of rocks and minerals, also examining the evolutionary relationships of living things.

  7.  The Museum's collection therefore underpins our knowledge of the living world and the earth on which it exists, providing a definitive physical reference resource for work on the natural world, for purposes ranging from fundamental exploration of the patterns of life, to highly applied oil and mineral exploration, or contributions to the fight against malaria. The cultural and scientific value of the collection derives from its immense variety, its scale in time and its geographical coverage, in addition to the immense intellectual input that has ordered and defined it.

  8.  The policies of the Museum for its collections are set out in Curatorial Policies and Collections Management Procedures 1998 (copies have been provided for the Committee). This includes policies for care and management, conservation, acquisitions, disposals, destructive and invasive sampling, audit, documentation, access, loans, risk management and security.


  9.  The Museum operates within legal frameworks and there are various policies operated by the Museum that indicate its opposition to illicit trade.

  10.  The Acquisition policy states that:

    "The Natural History Museum will not acquire, by whatever means, any object unless the Museum is satisfied it can obtain title to the object in question, and that it has not been acquired in, or exported from, its country of origin (or any intermediate country in which it may have been legally owned) in violation of that country's laws" (paragraph 5.3.4 Curatorial Policies and Collections Management Procedures 1998).

  11.  Curatorial Policies and Collections Management Procedures 1998 also includes the Museum's Code for collecting biological and geological specimens in which it is stated that:

    "Museum scientists undertaking fieldwork . . . will only do so in accordance with the laws and regulations of the sovereign nation in whose territory they are working" (Appendix 6 Curatorial Policies and Collections Management Procedures 1998).

  12.  In its Bioprospecting Policy (Appendix 7 in Curatorial Policies and Collections Management Procedures 1998), the Museum states its commitment to act in accordance with the provisions of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity 1992 relevant to bioprospecting. This commitment to the principles of the Convention is echoed in the Museum's policy on the use of specimens in DNA-based studies (Appendix 8, Curatorial Policies and Management Procedures 1998). The Convention clearly asserts the sovereign rights of States over their own biological resources.

  13.  The UNIDROIT and UNESCO Conventions indicate the status of rare natural history specimens and collections as cultural objects and accords them appropriate protection. The Committee may also wish to consider how provisions for similar protection have been made under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which was ratified by the UK in 1976. While CITES does cover trade in non-living material, it does not cover palaeontological or mineralogical material and is limited to listed species. Its coverage therefore overlaps with that of the other Conventions only in certain areas. The Museum is regularly consulted and used as a source of expertise by those responsible for operating the regulations implementing CITES in the UK.


  14.  With regard to issues of return for items that have not been acquired as a result of illicit trade, there are important constraints on disposal that severely limit the possibility of return by the Museum. However, there are other collaborative avenues open that can give greater benefit to those in the country of origin.

The Museum's Policy on Disposal

  15.  There are specific legal constraints on disposal of objects from the collection, coupled with a strong presumption by the Museum against disposal. However, there are certain conditions under which disposal is possible.

  16.  The Museum's position on disposal of objects in the collection is defined by the terms of the British Museum Act 1963, paragraph 5, which gives precise and limited conditions under which disposal is permitted. The Act states:

    5.—(1) The Trustees of the British Museum may sell, exchange, give away or otherwise dispose of any object vested in them and comprised in their collections if:

    (a)  the object is a duplicate of another such object, or

    (b)  the object appears to the Trustees to have been made not earlier than the year 1850, and substantially consists of printed matter of which a copy made by photography or a process akin to photography is held by the Trustees, or

    (c)  in the opinion of the Trustees the object is unfit to be retained in the collections of the Museum and can be disposed of without detriment to the interests of students:

    Provided that where an object has become vested in the Trustees by virtue of a gift or bequest the powers conferred by this subsection shall not be exercisable as respects that object in a manner inconsistent with any condition attached to the gift or bequest.

    (2)  The Trustees may destroy or otherwise dispose of any object vested in them and comprised in their collections if satisfied that it has become useless for the purposes of the Museum by reason of damage, physical deterioration, or infestation by destructive organisms.

  17.  The Museum's policy on disposal adds that

    ". . . Section 6 of the Museums and Galleries Act 1992 permits the Trustees to dispose of an object, by way of sale, gift or exchange, to the other national institutions listed in Schedule 5 to the Act (see Appendix 10) "[of Curatorial Policies and Collections Management Procedures 1998]". However, there is a strong presumption against disposal of specimens, other than by transfer as gift or in exchange to another suitable institution (that is, not restricted to those listed in the 1992 Act), or by destructive investigation for research purposes." (Curatorial Policies and Collections Management Procedures 1998 paragraph 5.4.1)

    "Any decision to dispose of registered objects will be taken only after due consideration. The Museum will assess all material considered for disposal in terms of its scientific, historical and cultural importance, the needs of both present and future users; and legal and ethical issues as they relate to that material." (Curatorial Policies and Collections Management Procedures 1998 paragraph 5.4.4)

Alternatives to Disposal

  18.  Given the comprehensive global coverage of the collection and of expertise, the Museum recognises its responsibilities and the benefits in collaborating with scientists, governments and communities all over the world in the use of the collection. For the overwhelming majority of the collection, the issue of disposal and permanent legal transfer of items to their countries of origin has not been raised with the Museum on an international level.

  19.  The alternatives to disposal and return in natural history in general are numerous. Indeed, the alternatives, for the majority of users with a scientific interest in the use of the collection, offer particular benefits that may outweigh return.

  20.  Information resources: the major part of the value of natural history collections lies in their potential and actual information content, which can be used in answering both fundamental and highly applied questions about the natural world. This information is disseminated to appropriate audiences—indeed, the information may be developed in a particular way to meet the specific needs of a particular audience. Examples of information resources include:

    —  Over 400 scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals each year.

    —  Development of databases to give information on the Museum's collection.

    —  A rapidly expanding website with numerous specialist and popular sections, for use in combination with a visit to the Museum, or remotely as stand-alone resources.

    —  Information repatriation—the Museum is active in working with institutions in a range of different countries on developing information resources from the Museum's collections and expertise for particular needs in biodiversity conservation, training, or sustainable use of natural resources (see para 21 below).

    —  The Museum is also active in the development of information resources for indigenous communities, in collaboration with appropriate national agencies. A guide to the medicinal plants of the Mbaracayu Forest Reserve in Paraguay has been developed in the local Guarani language under a Darwin Initiative project funded by the UK Government. Another NHM publication on medical plants is the first book to be published in the language of the Tawahka people of Honduras (Mayangna Panan Basni).

  21.  An example of collaboration on information resources is on plant information and technology transfer for Nepal. The Natural History Museum and Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu, are collaborating on the repatriation of plant information and technology for Nepal. This is supported with funding from the UK Government's Darwin Initiative (DETR). Nepal wishes to document the great diversity of its flora, an undertaking of fundamental importance in conserving biological diversity and ensuring sustainable development with appropriate use of natural resources. Around 60,000 Nepalese specimens, including many type specimens, are held in the UK in the collections of the NHM, the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, with the result that the most important resources for information on Nepalese plants are in the UK. The project is repatriating information on important specimens by developing a specimen database, a CD-ROM of high-resolution reference images, a bibliographic database, and other information resources. These resources will provide unhindered access to information in Nepal itself. Furthermore, the project includes collaborative research and training for five Nepalese Botanists in the NHM. This collaboration is planned to continue beyond this specific project on a more comprehensive Flora of Nepal, bringing further benefits to Nepal, and enabling the NHM to continue research and information resource development through international collaboration on its collections.

  22.  There are important avenues that provide access to the collection themselves:

    —  Loans: The Museum sends out around 50,000 items on loan every year that enable important material to be gathered in any one place for scientific work, whether in the Museum or in its collaborating institutions in developed and developing countries.

    —  Visitors: The Museum hosts thousands of visitor days from scientific and library users who come to use the collections each year.

    —  Enquiries: The Museum's scientists answer over 40,000 queries each year, many requiring the use of the collections and associated expertise to identify animals, plants, fossils or minerals. Public enquiries are answered free of charge—commercial enquiries are dealt with on a consultancy footing.

  In addition to discharging its responsibilities, there are benefits to the Museum in making loans and hosting visits: other institutions make loans to the Museum and are visited by its scientists. This system depends fundamentally on goodwill and perception of mutual benefit. Beyond this, the use by others of the collections results in essential intellectual input to the collection—re-ordering, updating of names and taxonomic authorities, supporting information and practical scientific knowledge.

  23.  Collecting strategies: current approaches to collecting ensure that specimens will continue to be available in the country of origin, should local agencies wish it. In undertaking new collections, the Museum operates in collaboration with the appropriate national agencies, and specimens collected can be divided between the Natural History Museum and local museums, with appropriate measures taken for accurate identification and development of information resources. In a few countries, there may be lengthy legal procedures before permanent export, and in such cases it may be preferable for material to be incorporated into a local collection and subsequently temporarily loaned to the National History Museum for study and sharing of resulting information.

  24.  Capacity building: for some countries, resources may not be available to provide facilities to hold national collections, to receive loans, to develop scientific expertise, or to send scientists to London. The Museum is active in developing collaborative projects with different institutions in the developing world with financial support from various agencies. These capacity-building projects may cover:

    —  Development of local collections facilities and museums to meet local needs.

    —  Training of staff in managing collections and in various aspects of systematic science.

    —  Programmes of exchange visits to work on collections in the UK and in country.

    —  Collaboration on information management to meet particular sustainable development needs—the production of databases or Web-based identification guides, for example.

Continuing Issues on Return

  25.  The area of the Museum's work that has raised most discussion on return in the past, and is certain to continue to be an issue of debate in the future, is that of research on human remains.

  26.  This is an area of work that enables investigation of human origins and evolution, and explains variations in form over time and by geographical area. The work ranges from work on pre-modern humans such as the Neanderthal people, through to examination of relatively modern populations, seeking to explain patterns of variation, the impact of diet and disease, and the nature of interactions with the environment. Human skeletal material is essential evidence if we are to gain fuller understanding of particular societies at certain times in our past. At one end of the time scale, the research is related to palaeontological research on our hominid ancestors: at the other, research is complimentary to forensic anthropology and medical osteology.

  27.  The Museum has research and collections management staff working on human and hominid material. In addition, 200-300 visiting scientists use the collection each year for a total of 900-1,000 visitor days.

  28.  Some of the human remains in the Museum come from areas of the world where there is considerable debate and activity on the return of remains from museums and universities to the indigenous peoples who inhabited the land before European colonisation. This is particularly so for Australasia and North America.

  29.  The Museum is firmly convinced that there is continuing scientific value in such a collection, and that it should continue to be the focus of active research. However, the Museum also recognises that the discourse on human remains in museums is framed more widely than scientific research, in terms of cultural property. The Museum agrees that there is a need to work with institutions and organisations in those countries where there is community demand for the return of human remains from collections, and demands for a role for indigenous peoples in determining the use of remains in museums. The aim of such collaboration is to provide better information on what the Museum does, to learn from the experience of others in this context, and to develop mutually acceptable solutions in areas where there are conflicting views.

  30.  The scale of the collection of human remains in the NHM stands at almost 20,000 items (many of which are partial skeletons or individual bones). More than half of these are from the UK, some dating back tens of thousands of years. Those from areas of sensitivity are fewer in number—the number of items from Australia and the Torres Strait Islands stands at around 450 (including almost 100 hair samples), for example.

  31.  The information available on the collection in the past to non-scientists has been poor, and to address this issue, we have been developing a new inventory of particular parts of the collection over the past 18 months (this is focusing in particular on Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and North America (including Hawaii)). This information is now on a database and can be used to meet the information needs of scientists and non-scientists alike. Around 40 requests for information on remains in the Museum are received each year, and of these, two to three appear to be linked to issues of return.

  32.  Paragraphs 15-17 above discuss the barriers to return: the Museum is however willing to discuss alternatives to return with appropriate institutions and organisations. In particular we are willing to discuss:

    —  the development of information resources;

    —  systems of care for remains in the museum; and

    —  access for non-scientists to the remains.

    We are also willing to discuss other issues as they may be raised by others.

  33.  Museum staff contributed to the development of the MGC Guidelines on restitution and repatriation. These guidelines provide an important focus for discussion and the development of institutional policy. The Natural History Museum sees value in information exchange, discussion and collaboration with UK and overseas institutions on issues related to return. To this end, for example, Museum staff have been in discussion with institutions in Australia.

March 2000

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