By Jack Ashby, on 24 February 2016
Last week we added a human specimen to our display of animal brains. Why wouldn’t we?
The real question is why hadn’t we. And the answer is that we weren’t allowed to. The Human Tissues Act (2004) controls how human bodies, organs and tissues are used. Different licenses are required to store, teach with or display human specimens. Until recently, we didn’t have any of these licences for the Grant Museum, which affected what we could include to represent Homo sapiens in our displays.
How museums display humans
There are many ways in which a human might find themself in a museum after they died.
In archaeological galleries the human is often there to represent their culture at a specific point in time – often appearing in the form of burial remains. The museum’s interpretation might explain what the burial situation and scientific analysis of the bones tell us about their culture. They may also find that details of their own specific lives are included in labels – who might this person have been?
In anthropological galleries a human may find themselves simply as part of an artefact made by someone else. For example in a tooth necklace, or a skull-cap bowl. In this way they may not be there to represent themselves individually or even their own group – they are reduced to an object made by somebody else, representing somebody else’s behaviour.
In social history museums human remains may be there to physically represent the very individual that they once were. The label might read “This is Queen Nancy…”. The object that Nancy has become is there not as a representation, but as the real, specific thing – Nancy herself. The labels would likely tell you about Nancy’s life. She continues to have an identitity, and her personality is the focus of the story. Our own Jeremy Bentham is an obvious example of a preserved personality (though technically he isn’t in a museum).
In medical collections human remains are often displayed as a representation of a specific condition – this is a lung displaying cancer, for example. Any specifics of the person’s life (beyond factors linked to the medical condition in question) are likely omitted from the labels.
In natural history collections, like ours, human remains probably have to work harder than they do anywhere else, as they are normally their to represent their entire species. Just like every other object we display – this is a platypus; this is a turkey; this is a human.
So to recap:
- Archaeology – remains may represent populations in a given time and place.
- Anthropology – remains may simply be part of an object made by someone else.
- Social history – remains may represent the specific individual.
- Medicine – remains may represent a pathological condition.
- Natural history – remains may represent all humans ever.
Humans in natural history museums
Humans in natural history museums are essentially just another species of animal. It would be incomplete to create a display of primate skeletons without including a human (start a tally of how many museums displays like this include humans to see how widely accepted that view is). That’s either because humans are nothing special – just another ape, or because we – as human visitors to human museums – want to see how we fit into our own zoological family. Or probably both.
The Grant Museum is a comparative anatomy collection – designed to allow the same structures in different animals to be seen together and compared. What do the similarities and differences between mammal hands, for example, tell us about how those species are related or how they move through their habitats?
We already had two humans on display before the addition of this brain. A skeleton is in the famous row of apes on our balcony – clearily communicating that orang-utans, gorillas, chimps and humans are essentially the same on the inside. We also have a skull in a display of primates, alongside fossil hominids. The label for the human simply describes it in similar terms to the other specimens – how long the species has been around, and a couple of distinguising features (a chin, for example).
If you’re wondering how we could display these without a licence as mentioned above, a quirk of the Human Tissues Act is that it only covers material that’s less than 100 years old, so our skeleton and skull are exempt. The most common question we get about these specimens are whether they are real – visitors clearly think about human remains in museums as a special case, but are they?
The new brain
One of the most popular displays in the Museum is the comparative anatomy collection of brains. I’ve long wished we could add a human brain to it, to show how similar and different we are to pigeons, dogs, porpoises, monkeys and orang-utans, to name a few. As UCL Museums now have a licence to display human remains under the Human Tissues Act, it gave us the chance to fulfill my wish. We have borrowed a human brain from UCL Museums’ Pathology Collection (an amazing resource used widely in teaching UCL medical students, but not open to the public).
The specimen’s purpose has changed as a result – it is no longer being used as an example of a healthy brain to compare with diseased brains alongside it in a medical collection. Instead, it has become a representative of its entire species – just another animal.
On one of our QRator iPads, we once asked the question “Should human and animal remains be treated differently in museums like ours?” There were nearly six times as many responses saying that displaying human remains is acceptable as those who felt humans should be treated differently.
Humans are animals, and as long as the specimens have been acquired ethically (as required by the Human Tissues Act), I think human remains should be included in zoology displays wherever they can be instructive. Now we have the licence, I hope we can find more opportunities – let us know if you have any ideas in the comments box below.
One aim of museums is to help people understand their place in the world. I hope that the addition of this human specimen to our brain display will help visitors see how they fit into the animal kingdom. As a result, they might feel special because our brains are big, or be humbled by how similar we mammals are on the inside. Or they might try any interpret it in one of the modes of the another discipline, and ask whose brain it is.
Jack Ashby is Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology