THE ROYAL COLLEGE OF SURGEONS OF ENGLAND
35-43 Lincoln 's Inn Fields London WC2A 3PE
Tel. 0207 869 6009
Fax: 0207 869 6005
From the President Mr Bernard Ribeiro CBE PRCS
Mr Michael Brennan NCH ND Arb
Co Mayo EIRE
1 February 2008
Dear Mr Brennan
Re: Remains of Charles Byrne
Thank you for your letter of 28 December regarding the skeleton of Charles Byrne. As you note, the skeleton forms part of the Hunterian Collection, and as a result I felt it best that your letter be placed before the Board of Trustees of the Hunterian Collection at the earliest opportunity. The matter was duly tabled at the meeting of the Board held on 6 h February. As well as your letter, the Board also considered the letter by Mr Michael Ring TD, and the correspondence between you and Mr Mark Caldon of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. I was present at the meeting, and I can assure you that the Trustees gave a full a full and fair consideration of your request which took into account the issues you raised. At the same time, however, the Trustees felt that in this instance there were other factors which persuaded them that the skeleton should remain on display in the Hunterian Museum . I have enclosed a summary of their discussion.
In considering your request the Trustees took into account the Hunterian Museum 's Acquisitions and Disposals Policy, which deals specifically with the question of human remains and which embraces the principles set out in the DCMS Guidance on the Care of Human Remains. With all such requests, we consider carefully both the feelings of the claimant and also the historical and scientific value which remains may possess. As a medical institution, charged with the care of one of the oldest and most important medical collections in the world, the College and the Hunterian Trustees are jointly aware of their responsibilities as custodians of a unique public collection. The Hunterian Museum takes great care to present the human remains it contains in a manner which is both sensitive and dignified. As our recent decisions on the return of remains to Australia and New Zealand demonstrate, we are highly conscious that human remains may possess great cultural significance beyond their value as a historical or scientific record. At the same time we also take due account of their current and future value for scientific study and historical understanding, and each request must be considered individually. In the case of Charles Byrne's skeleton, the Trustees gave careful thought to the question of whether it should remain on display when plans for the redevelopment of the museum were being made in 2004. At that time it was considered impracticable to replace the remains with a cast or replica. Since reopening, we have evaluated the views of our visitors to ensure that the display is not perceived as undignified or inappropriate. Our research suggests that it is not, and that the respectful and considered manner in which the skeleton is shown, in the context of both the collection as a whole and of the development of modern medical science, encourages our visitors to reflect upon the difficult questions which have arisen in connection with the study of the human body.
I realise that this decision will not be the one you were hoping for. However I hope you will understand that with all such requests a balance of views must be considered, and that the process of weighing them was conducted openly and honestly.
Yours sincerely [Bernard Ribeiro]
cc. Mr Mark Caldon, Cultural Property Unit, DCMS
Mr Michael Ring TD
Enclosed: extract from the unconfirmed Minutes of the Board of Hunterian Trustees Meeting held on 6 February 2008
6. Request for return of Charles Byrne's skeleton
6.1 The Director reported on a request received by the President of the College from Mr Michael Brennan of Loughanaganky, Co. Mayo, Eire, requesting that the skeleton of Charles Byrne be returned to Ireland for burial at sea. The Director tabled a further paper giving details of subsequent correspondence with Mr Brennan, and with Mr Michael Ring ID (Assembly Member for Mr Brennan's constituency in Eire ) and Mr Mark Caldon of the Cultural Property Unit at the UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).
6.2 The Chairman commented that it was regrettable that Mr Caldon had appeared to offer contradictory advice to Mr Brennan, and noted that the Government was represented on the Board through the Trustees by Office. Subsequent enquiries had confirmed that the Government took no position on this matter.
6.3 The Board discussed the request at some length. It was noted that under the College's current Acquisitions and Disposals Policy the return of human remains to private individuals could only be considered if there was a direct genealogical connection. The Board observed that this requirement had been expanded in relation to specific non-European ancestral remains where proof of decent or relationship was impossible, but where robust legislative frameworks existed to define communal claims to ancestral remains. This was the case with New Zealand and Australia , and it was on this basis that the recent repatriations of remains to those countries had been undertaken. Mr Brennan did not make the request on the basis of any personal connection with Byrne, but rather as a member of the public. Under the terms of the current Policy it was not possible for the Board to consider the return of remains to an individual on this basis.
6.4 The Board nevertheless felt that under the terms of the Acquisition and Disposal Policy and in keeping with the spirit of the DCMS Guidelines on the Care of Human Remains, serious and sympathetic consideration should be given to all requests. The decision to return remains to Australia and New Zealand had recognised both the overwhelming importance attached to ancestral remains in Australian Aboriginal and Maori culture, but also that the remains in question were not displayed, nor were they the subject of any current historical or scientific research. The decision to return the remains had been on the basis of specific circumstances, and both the Trustees and the College Council had indicated that such decisions could only be made on a case-by-case basis. In relation to the current case the Trustees felt that unlike the Maori and Aboriginal remains there was a very strong counter-argument for retention: the skeleton had been a permanent and prominent part of the Hunterian Collection before the purchase by Government in 1799, it had been on public display in the museum ever since and it still possessed scientific and medical significance as a rare and irreplaceable example of pituitary gigantism.
6.5 The Board further noted that careful consideration of whether to replace the skeleton with a cast or replica had been given during the Hunterian Museum refurbishment process in 2004. It had been felt at that time that such a move would not be practicable, and this remained the case. Since the reopening of the museum the feelings of visitors with regard to Byrne's remains had been carefully evaluated, and the overwhelming majority felt that its retention and display in a dignified and considered manner was appropriate. Although the Trustees recognised that Mr Brennan's request was sincere, the Board did not feel that the views of one individual could be considered in isolation.
6.5 The unanimous decision of the Board was therefore that the skeleton should remain on display as part of the Hunterian Collection. It was agreed that the Director would draft a statement outlining the Trustees' decision for the President of the College so that a reply could be made to Mr Brennan.
Secretary to the Board
Cultural Property Unit
2-4 Cockspur Street
London SW1Y 5DH
Michael Brennan NCH ND Arb
Dear Mr Brennan,
SKELETON OF CHARLES BYRNE
Thank you for your letter of 28 December to Margaret Hodge about the skeleton of Charles Byrne. I have been asked to reply.
This is a fascinating yet sad story and is also one that is familiar to me as I understand that Mr Byrne once resided in an apartment in Cockspur Street, which is where the DCMS offices are now located. Historical records tell us that Mr Byrne wished to be buried at sea so, if this is indeed true, it is truly unfortunate that his last wishes were not respected.
I am afraid, however, that the Government has no control over decisions taken by the Royal College regarding its collections. Even where publicly-funded national museums are concerned, the care of human remains in their collections and requests for repatriation are dealt with by the museum authorities. Government does, however, take a close interest in these issues and has issued Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums. The Guidance covers such issues as the legal and ethical framework, the curation, care and use of human remains and claims for the return of remains. The Guidance provides museums with a model process for handling claims for return including some suggested criteria for museums to use in reaching a decision on whether or not to return remains. A copy of the Guidance is enclosed.
I wish you luck with your efforts to persuade the Royal College to comply with your request.
Tel 02072116158 Fax 02072116170 mark.catdon@ cutture.gsi.gov.uk
OFFICE OF THE MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS
Mr. Michael Brennan
Our Ref: A1080043
Dear Mr. Brennan,
The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Dermot Ahern, T.D., has asked me to thank you for your letter of 28 December 2007 concerning the possible repatriation of the skeletal remains of Mr. Charles Byrne, “the Irish Giant”, from the Hunterian Collection of the Royal College of Surgeons of England and to reply to you on his behalf
Following receipt of your letter, and at the Minister's request, the Embassy of Ireland in London has been in contact with the Royal College of Surgeons in relation to this matter.
As you are aware, the question of repatriation was considered subsequently by the Board of Trustees of the Hunterian Collection at a meeting on 6 February. I know that the President of the College has written to you informing you of their decision to retain the skeleton on display. They also indicated to the Embassy the reasons for this decision, which are as set out in their letter to you.
It will be a disappointment to you that the Trustees did not find in your favour, on the basis that a petition for repatriation should come from a descendent. Should a member of the extended Byrne family wish to make a similar petition to the Trustees at a later date, it may be that progress might be made.
13 March, 2008
OFFICE OF THE SECRETARY GENERAL TO THE PRESIDENT
Mr. Micheal Brennan
Dear Mr. Brennan,
Thank you for your letter of 3 March, 2008 , to President McAleese.
I am sorry to learn of the difficulties described in your letter but I am afraid that it would not be appropriate for the President, in view of the constitutional requirements of her office, to intervene.
With every good wish.
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