Scientific study of the British Museum collection

The British Museum maintains world-class laboratory facilities for scientific research on the collection and employs a team of scientists (find out more about their work).

The Museum also makes the collection available for scientific examination and analysis by external researchers, a need that must be balanced with the duty to care for and preserve the collection for
future generations laid out in the in the British Museum Act of 1963.

Applications to conduct scientific analysis of British Museum material

The Museum receives a lot of requests to access collection material for external scientific research. To safeguard the collection, all requests are subject to a review process following a formal application procedure. Decisions to permit access are based on the expert opinions of a Review Panel. The Review Panel comprises British Museum curators and scientists with relevant expertise. Occasionally the Review Panel may invite the opinion of external experts to support their decisions. Vulnerable objects may also require conservation assessment.

Requests involving access to materials of human origin require a more detailed assessment to guarantee compliance with the Human Tissue Act 2004 and ensure that such material is treated with appropriate respect, care and dignity.

British Museum policy on Human Remains 

Please note that requests for access to human remains in the collection that are the subject of a claim for transfer cannot be granted while the outcome of the claim is pending.

All applications are assessed on the following criteria:

  • The scholarly merit of the proposal
  • The feasibility of the project
  • The appropriateness of the proposed scientific techniques/methods to answer the questions posed
  • Experience and expertise of the research team in applying these techniques/methods
  • Previous work undertaken on similar material
  • The fragility of the material in question
  • Sample sizes required in relation to the size and rarity/uniqueness of the object
  • Other immediate or long term impact on the object(s), including risks associated with exposure of object(s) to ionising or non-ionising radiation
  • Experience of the research team in working with museum material
  • Anticipated outputs of the research (publications, etc.)
  • Health and safety implications

Applicants are expected to indicate thorough knowledge of previous work undertaken (citing appropriate references).

The potential of novel techniques should have been demonstrated on model material in advance of their application to museum samples.

If the information provided is insufficient to review the application satisfactorily then further information may be requested. Please note that any further information provided is also subject to review, so the provision of supplementary information is not a guarantee of access. The application should be submitted as far in advance of the deadline for the work as possible, as access at short notice cannot be guaranteed. It should be completed as fully as possible and may be accompanied by supporting material.

Applicants are encouraged to make an honest assessment of the likelihood of success/risk of failure of the project and small-scale pilot studies on collection material prior to a full-scale study may be suggested in certain cases.

For requests relating to materials of human origin, applicants may wish to consult the following guidance documents from the APABE (Advisory Panel on the Archaeology of Burials in England) and DCMS (Department for Culture, Media and Sport):

‘Science and the Dead: A guideline for the destructive sampling of archaeological human remains for scientific c analysis’ (2013) 

‘Guidance for Best Practice for the Treatment of Human Remains Excavated from Christian Burial Grounds in England’ (2017) 

‘Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums’ (2005) 

Where two or more requests for substantially the same work are received applicants may be asked to collaborate. Collaboration with British Museum scientists may also be suggested, particularly where the Museum has a research interest in the area or if the material concerned is very fragile.

How to apply

Applications for samples for scientific study, or to undertake non-destructive analysis of British Museum material should be submitted using the appropriate version of the British Museum’s External Examination Application form:

Application form EE1 (standard) 

Application form EE2 (human remains) 

Please email forms to science@britishmuseum.org

We recommend you discuss your request with the relevant curator before submitting an application.

The Review Panel meets to assess requests four times a year and applications should be submitted by the deadlines indicated. Applicants will be notified of a decision within 1 month of the Review Panel meeting.

Forthcoming submission deadlines:

15 January 2018 (for Review Panel meeting on 31 January 2018)

2 April 2018 (for Review Panel meeting on 2 May 2018)

Curatorial contacts 

Conditions

If permission is granted the following conditions will apply:

All analytical data and results must be made available, in confidence and prior to publication, to the appropriate department of the British Museum

The Museum shall be allowed to make these data publicly available five years after they are received, whether or not they have been published elsewhere

All residual samples remain the property of the British Museum (all mounted and residual samples shall be returned to the British Museum within one year unless otherwise agreed)

Samples may only be used for the purpose(s) outlined in the application (any other purpose must be the subject of a further application)

Two copies of any publications arising from the work must be provided

Any agreed costs of sampling by British Museum staff shall be paid by the applicant

Previous conduct in respect of these conditions will be taken into account when reviewing subsequent applications.

The British Museum may also consult with other institutions when assessing applications, particularly if samples have been requested from several collections.