A A A

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.

 

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.

Dem Bones, Dem Bones, Dem Dry Bones … Excavating Memory, Digging up the Past

By Gemma Angel, on 16 July 2012

by Katie Donington

 

 

 

 

Above all, he must not be afraid to return again and again to the same matter; to scatter it as one scatters earth, to turn it over as one turns over soil. For the ‘matter itself’ is no more than the strata which yield their long-sought secrets only to the most meticulous investigation. That is to say, they yield those images that, severed from all earlier associations, reside as treasures in the sober rooms of our later insights – like torsos in a collector’s gallery.[1]

The Buried on Campus exhibition at the Grant Museum ran from April 23rd to July 13th 2012. Following the 2010 discovery of human remains beneath the Main Quad of UCL, research was undertaken to determine the reason for their presence. Forensic anatomist Wendy Birch and forensic anthropologist Christine King, members of the UCL Anatomy Lab, were able to date the bones which were over a hundred years old. The bones themselves also gave clues to the reason for their presence. Several items had numbers written on them and others displayed signs of medical incisions. This led the team to the conclusion that the bones represented a portion of the UCL Anatomy Collection which had been buried at some point after 1886.

The issue of displaying human remains in a museum of zoology was discussed by Jack Ashby, Grant Museum Manager in a recent blog post:

The whole topic of displaying human remains has to be considered carefully and handled sensitively… One of the questions we asked our visitors last term on a QRator iPad was “Should human and animal remains be treated any differently in museums like this?” and the majority of the responses were in favour of humans being displayed, with the sensible caveats of consent and sensitivity.[2]

The discovery and exhibition of human remains raises interesting questions about the relationship between archaeology, history, science, memory and identity. It also links into debates over the ethics of display in relation to human beings. Who were these people? Why did their bodies end up in an anatomy collection? Did they consent or were they compelled? Is it possible or desirable to attempt to retrieve or reconstruct the object as subject?

The case of the bones buried on campus reminds me of another example in which the physical act of excavation was transformed into an act of historical re-inscription. In 1991, workmen digging the foundations of a new federal building close to Wall Street uncovered the remains of 419 men, women and children. Archaeologists, historians and scientists were called in and they were able to identify the area as a 6.6 acre site used for the burial of free and enslaved Africans by examining maps from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The Maerschalck Map of 1754, showing the Negro Burial Grounds near the “Fresh Water” (the Collect Pond). Image © The African Burial Ground Project.

 

 

 

 

 

The bones offered specific information which helped to give a partial identity to the people interred. Using ‘skeletal biology’[3] it was possible in some cases to pin point where in Africa individuals had come from – Congo, Ghana, Ashanti and Benin, as well as revealing whether they had been transported via the Caribbean. Bone analysis spoke of the appalling conditions of slavery; fractured, broken, malformed and diseased bones articulated stories of unrelenting labour, nutritional deficiency and coercive violence.

Objects found inside some of the burials created a sense of the uniqueness of each person as well as the care taken by loved ones as they performed burial rituals. The lack of items found also indicated the social status of the majority of people buried on the site.

This pendant (image courtesy of the African Burial Ground Project) was recovered from burial 254, a child aged between 3 ½ and 5 ½ years old. It was found near the child’s jaw and may have been either an earring or part of a necklace. The objects and bones represented a visceral historic link to the African American community in New York. The sense of ownership they felt towards this history and the individuals who had emerged from the soil, led to active community engagement in the project. In line with the wishes of the African American community, all original items were facsimiled before being reinterred along with all 419 ancestral remains in a ceremony in 2003. A memorial and museum were also built on the site (see image below, courtesy of the African Burial Ground Project).

The emergence of the skeletons was interpreted by some as a literal rendering of the way in which America has been haunted by its relationship with slavery. As physical anthropologist Michael Blakely, who worked on the site explained; ‘with the African Burial Ground we found ourselves standing with a community that wanted to know things that had been hidden from view, buried, about who we are and what this society has been.’[4]

The context of the two sites is of course very different. However, a comparison of them does raise questions about the uses of human remains and their relationship to history, memory and identity. The bones at UCL formed part of an anatomical teaching collection; a composite of individuals whose bodies somehow became the property of medical institutions. Those people often consisted of those on the margins of society; the poor, the criminal and the exoticised ‘others’ of empire.[5] Debates over the repatriation of human remains in museum collections highlight their importance to people’s sense of identity and history. Without family or community groups to claim the individuals discovered at UCL, it seems that they are destined to remain object rather than subject – ‘severed from all earlier associations… torsos in a collector’s gallery’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

Have your say – what do you think should happen to the bones at UCL?


[1] Walter Benjamin, ‘Excavation and Memory’, in Selected Writings, Vol. 2, Part 2 (1931–1934),ed. by Marcus Paul Bullock, Michael William Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith, (Massachusetts, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005), p. 576.

[2] http://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/museums/2012/04/24/buried-on-campus-has-opened/

[3] http://www.archaeology.org/online/interviews/blakey/

[4] http://www.archaeology.org/online/interviews/blakey/

[5] Sadiah Qureshi, ‘Displaying Sara Baartman, The Hottentot Venus’, History of Science, Volume 42 (2004), pp.233-257.

http://www.negri-froci-giudei.com/public/pdfs/qureshi-baartman.pdf