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Researchers in Museums


Engaging the public with research & collections


Should human remains be displayed in museums?

By Julia R Deathridge, on 28 March 2017

If you have ever visited the Petrie Museum you are unlikely to have missed the man buried in a pot. In the past the pragmatic scientist in me had just regarded this as a skeleton in a pot; spending most of my time studying it to see how many of the different human bones I could still name from my undergraduate anatomy class (not that many it turns out!). However, a group of visiting American college students made me think about it differently. They were discussing the use of human remains in museum collections, their purpose, and the importance of displaying them respectfully. This opened up an interesting debate: how should human remains be displayed and should they even be displayed at all?

Pot burial from Hemamieh, near the village of Badari UC14856-8

Pot burial from Hemamieh, near the village of Badari. UC14856-8

In the past human remains were regularly collected from excavation sites and displayed in museum cases with little thought put into the person that they once were. However, feelings towards the use of human remains in the UK have begun to change in recent years. In 2005 the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) released a “Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums” outlining a code of practice for the handling and displaying of human remains. Consequently, human remains have been given a unique status within collections and are no longer treated as objects.

Repatriation of human remains has also become more common with many indigenous communities requesting the return of their ancestors. Since 1996 both the UK and Australian governments have been committed to the return of indigenous remains to Australia and New Zealand. Over 1000 remains have been returned including 13 skulls and one limb, which were repatriated from UCL in 2007.

A display that has caused a large amount of controversy is the skeleton of “The Irish Giant” Charles Byrne. To avoid being dissected and used for medical research, Charles Byrne requested to be buried at sea. His request was ignored and his skeleton currently resides in a cabinet at the Huntarian Museum. Many have advocated for the return of his bones from the Huntarian allowing his burial wishes to be fulfilled. The Huntarian Museum, however, claim there is no direct evidence of his burial wishes and the educational benefits he provides to living and future generations of visitors is of greater value.

This brings up another important question: Does the educational benefit of human remains outweigh the rights of the dead? Human remains are an important teaching tool for anthropology and archaeology and are vital to the study of medical sciences. Use of human remains in exhibitions can also greatly stimulate a learning experience, allowing a much stronger connection to the culture that is being represented. A survey by English Heritage showed that only 9% of people opposed the display of human bones in museums suggesting there is still high demand for public display of human remains in museums. However, museums must be careful to utilise human remains in an appropriate context in order to educate rather than just to attract audiences.

Charles Byrne's skeleton on display in the Huntarian Museum. Photo credit: CC image courtesy of Paul Dean

Charles Byrne’s skeleton on display in the Huntarian Museum. (Photo credit: CC image courtesy of Paul Dean)

Many people do not consider the ethical issues of how the dead should be displayed in a collection until they are asked: what if that was your grandfather or great-great grandmother? Would you still consider this respectful? However, for many of the ancient human remains collected, including the man buried in the pot, their ancestry has been lost and we cannot know how their descendants, or they themselves, would feel about how their body is being used in the name of education. Although admittedly it is hard to argue that this is what the ancient Egyptians would have wanted.

In our current legal system we rely on our family and loved ones to carry out our burial wishes. But in their absence we too would have no control over this, much like the ancient Egyptians on display. I’m not sure I would be willing for my skeleton to be used to educate future generation about the irreversible impact mobile phones had on our postures and spines (I’m imagining my skeleton hunched over my iPhone whilst scrolling through Instagram). But others might feel differently.

As attitudes towards the displaying of human remains change, museum’s policies will have to adapt. Maybe in the future forms of consent will be required, similar to signing up for organ donation. But how many people will actually be willing to donate their bodies to museums? I guess only time will tell.


4 Responses to “Should human remains be displayed in museums?”

  • 1
    Susan Elaine Jones wrote on 29 March 2017:

    I feel the importance of displays of human remains is invaluable. The last hundred years may be unique in human history in terms of not seeing human remains and engendering a culture of death denial.

    Historically, attending death beds, visiting church ossuaries and saintly relics and dissections for public education (not just behind closed doors of medical schools) all took their turns in human history of displaying the dead and helping the living come to terms with their mortality.

    In most eras, there have been volunteers. I am aware of thousands on the waiting lists of not only the local anatomy school, but the brain bank and even for Gunther von Hagen’s future Bodyworld exhibitions. It is easier to argue these are moral as they have signed consent forms; even when dissection was widely feared, some people stepped forward to offer their dead bodies for examination and display for the good of mankind (from Jeremy Bentham to the Dublin mass-pledge). It feels like a disservice to those (usually passionate) volunteers to assume that all human displays are somehow forced and do not respect their wishes.

    It seems a peculiarly modern whim that the only way to show respect is to hide our dead. With death happening in hospitals rather than at home, and a culture of closed coffins, it isn’t surprising that the public have to turn to displays in museums, Body Worlds, and even death awareness events such as Dying for Life to be able to look their inevitable future of death in the face, and so make the most of their lives.

    For all these reasons, I would argue strongly that most displays of human remains are both essential and respectful.

  • 2
    Tony wrote on 29 March 2017:

    This opens a whole can of worms, saying that dead people have rights? think of the unborn fetus many argue that until a certain amount of time they have no rights. So after a person is dead or before they are born, do they have rights? wow hard question.

  • 3
    Materials & Objects: What do researchers at UCL study? | UCL Researchers in Museums wrote on 2 May 2017:

    […] Should human remains be displayed in museums? […]

  • 4
    Katie wrote on 30 April 2018:

    After following Caitlin Doughty and reading her books, I have been questioning how ethical it is to display human remains. Over all, I think I’m in that 9% you mentioned. The Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh does a great job of replicating sarcophaguses and displaying pictures from excavation sites but doesn’t seem to display remains themselves. If museums can accurately replicate historical ” artifacts” then what is the use to spend millions of dollars maintaining King Blah blah IV?

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