Last updated on 04 May 2023
Public display of anatomical specimens FAQs
Human bodies, body parts and specimens may be put on public display, for example as part of an exhibition in a gallery or museum. If they are from the body of a deceased person who died less than 100 years ago, the premises must be licensed by the HTA for public display.
In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, consent must be given by the person themselves for any part of their body to be displayed in public. If the person wants to give consent for their body, or any part of it, to be displayed after their death, their consent must be written and witnessed. HTA regulation of the activity of public display provides assurance to the public that bodies or tissue from the deceased that are displayed to the public are handled with care and treated with respect.
The most common questions about public display are listed below.
The Human Tissue Act 2004 (HT Act) does not define public display, but the HTA considers public display to be an exhibition or display in which the body of a person, or relevant material which has come from the body of a person, is used for the purpose of being exposed to view by the public.
Relevant material is defined in the HT Act as material other than gametes, which consists of, or includes, human cells. The definition of relevant material covers bodies, body parts, tissues and cells. Relevant material includes human material which is preserved or treated in any way, but does not include embryos outside the human body, or hair and nail from the body of a living person. The legislative requirements of the HT Act do not apply to bodies or relevant material if more than 100 years have elapsed since the date of the person’s death.
The HTA’s code of practice on Public display gives examples of scenarios that are and are not considered to be public display.
No, the remit of the HTA under the HT Act extends to England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland has its own legislation, the Human Tissue (Scotland) Act 2006.
You can search for licensed establishments with our find an establishment tool.
Yes – Plastinated tissues are considered to be relevant material and the organisers need to apply for a HTA licence.
The organisers have to submit a licence application for public display. The HTA has a risk-based approach to regulation and considers the risk of non-compliance by temporary exhibitions to be high. This is because these exhibitions are held on premises which are not designed for the storage and display of human bodies and tissues. The HTA will undertake an on-site inspection of all temporary exhibitions before they open to the public.
Please refer to our licencing information.
The HTA evaluates all licence applications on a case-by-case basis before it decides whether or not to offer a licence.
Please refer to the fees and payment page.
There are two licensable activities relating to public display:
- Storage of the body of a deceased person or relevant material from a human body for a Scheduled Purpose and
- The use, for the purpose of public display, of the body of a deceased person, or relevant material which has come from the body of a deceased person.
Both activities are covered by one licence fee.
The HTA licensing framework includes a satellite licensing system. Satellite establishments are smaller premises that are under the same governance arrangements as a larger establishment (the hub) and are supervised by the same Designated Individual (DI).
Further information on satellite premises and licences.
The HTA will assess whether an establishment can meet a number of licensing Standards. These were developed in consultation with representatives from the Public Display sector. These relate to the consent provisions of the Human Tissue Act 2004 (HT Act), governance and quality systems, traceability and premises. The Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has put in place a national accreditation scheme with standards relating to the management of collections and the needs of users. The HTA’s standards for public display complement the standards set by the MLA.
The HTA inspects establishments which are licensed for public display. The HTA has published summary compliance reports for the public display sector which summarise compliance with our standards.
A licence for public display is not required:
• to display relevant material from living persons; or
• if more than 100 years have elapsed since the person’s death; or
• if the person who provided the material for public display was alive at the time of the donation, including if they have subsequently died.
If material is stored as part of a museum archive, and there is no intention of ever putting it on public display, a licence is not required (provided the establishment informs the HTA of this intention in writing).
The storage and public display of the bodies of deceased people, or relevant material from their bodies, are activities that are subject to licensing under the HT Act. The duration of the display or the number of items of relevant material on display does not affect the requirement for licensing.
Some establishments store material in an archive with no intention of ever putting the material on public display. If this is the case, the establishment should inform the HTA so that it can take a view on whether or not the establishment has to apply for a licence.
If no documentary evidence of the age of the material is available, the establishment can seek to establish the age of the material using scientific methods. If scientific methods cannot be applied or do not provide a conclusive answer, the earliest acquisition date or a written statement from an independent expert can be used as evidence of the age of the material.
If it is not possible to provide such evidence, the establishment will have to apply for a licence.
The HTA has issued a Code of Practice on Public display which provides guidance to professionals. There is also guidance on licence applications for public display available.
Under the Human Tissue Act, appropriate consent must be in place for the storage and use of the body of a deceased person, or relevant material from the body, for public display. Consent must be given in writing whilst the person is alive, for their body, body parts and tissue to be stored and displayed after their death. For consent to be valid it must be given voluntarily and by a person who has the ability to make an informed decision. The person giving consent must also have the best information given to them so that they can make their decision.
Consent in writing is valid:
• if it is signed by the person concerned in the presence of a witness; or
• signed at the direction of the person concerned, in his presence and in the presence of a witness; or
• if the person concerned is an adult, it is contained in the person’s will.
Consent is also required for the display of relevant material from a person who is still living.
Further guidance on consent is available in our Codes of Practice.
Anyone removing, storing or using material for the purpose of public display, whether from a deceased person or from a living person, must be satisfied that consent is in place, regardless of the country of origin, in line with the legal requirement for display of bodies originating in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, unless the HTA is satisfied that there are exceptional circumstances for not doing so.
The consent requirements do not apply to the display of human remains from people who died more than 100 years ago.
In addition, consent is not required to display relevant material which was obtained before September 2006 when the HT Act came into force.