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Buried on Campus: When Are Remains Human?

By Gemma Angel, on 10 September 2012

by Sarah Chaney

 

 

 

 


Katie’s recent post on the ethics of displaying human remains in museums, along with the recent Grant Museum exhibition on the topic, raised some important questions about collection and display. Unsurprisingly, this is a frequent topic of concern in medical museums – particularly in hospital museums, teaching collections tend to focus around anatomy and pathology, a large part of which consists of specimens of human remains. But what exactly constitutes “human remains”? This is, on occasion, a surprisingly difficult question to answer.

Many medical collections were created in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as anatomy schools grew and increasingly began to offer practical training for medical students, alongside lectures. One such fascinating collection can be found at Benjamin Franklin House, in Craven Street near Charing Cross. An ordinary Georgian townhouse, which was home to American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin for nearly sixteen years, the building also housed a private anatomy school. The school was run by the landlady’s son-in-law, William Hewson; who had previously worked with the well known anatomist William Hunter. Hewson sadly died young, of septicaemia contracted during a dissection, but the remains of his school were uncovered during the restoration of the house in recent years, in a pit where the back yard would have been.

It is not unusual for bones to be unearthed when foundations are laid for new buildings in London, something explored not so long ago in an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, London’s Dead. These skeletal remains are what first springs to mind when we think about human tissue. It is skeletons that we often expect to see in museums; the absence of flesh suggests age and the process of decay. How long, though, do we continue to regard these skeletons as the remains of our loved ones? Cemeteries, for example, tend to offer burial plots for periods of only around fifty or sixty years. By this time, the body will have decomposed, and the land can legally be re-used. In Sheffield, part of the former city cemetery has been turned into a park. In London, memorial grounds are built over all the time. Once people have faded from memory, it seems that their remains do too.

But what other human remains do we find in medical collections? Many of the specimens are dissections of various sizes and complexity. It seems obvious which of these are tissue and which not, but even here the recent Human Tissue Act has struggled to define humanity. We might assume that any part of our physical form constitutes human tissue but, legally speaking, this is not the case. Body parts that regularly grow and are removed, for example, are something of a grey area; for example, locks of hair, often kept as mementos of a loved one, can legally be kept or displayed by any museum. But what about blood? The status here is uncertain. On the other hand, a tumour which has been surgically removed is considered human tissue, despite the fact that the person operated on may well have considered it to be alien to their own person.

Stained Brain Specimens in the UCL Pathology Collection. Courtesy of Bethlam Heritage.

One of the things that intrigues me most, however, is the place of foreign bodies in medical collections. Foreign bodies are objects that have been swallowed, inhaled or otherwise inserted into the human body. Often, particularly when these items end up in the bladder, the body creates deposits around these objects, protecting organs from sharp edges or corrosive material. When removed, the foreign body may be invisible within layers of mineral coating. These objects are faintly mysterious: created by the human body, they are nonetheless not considered to be human at all. They lie beyond the regulations on human tissue, but could not have come into existence in the first place without having had a relationship with that tissue.