The issue of displaying human remains in museums is one that I find very interesting because there is no right or wrong way of going about it. When dealing with this topic you first must answer the question of what are human remains? Human remains are bodies and body parts of a once living person. This includes osteological material such as whole or part skeletons, individual bones or fragments of bone and teeth; soft tissue including organs and skin, embryos, and slide preparations of human tissue. This also includes any of the above that has been modified by human skill. In line with the human tissue act, this does not include hair and nails.
After widespread support within the museum sector for a guidance laying out how to approach issues surrounding the holding of human remains by museums in England, Wales and Northern Ireland the Department for Culture, Media and Sport released a guidance for the care of human remains in museums in 2005. While museums can develop their own policies on ethics, since it is a complex issue, these guidelines give them a base on which to make their decisions. The purpose of this document is to guide museums in good decision making regarding human remains, to help develop an ethical approach to the care and handling of remains, encourage museums to reflect on their decisions and the outcomes, and finally to encourage good communication between museums, individuals, and the public. I believe that it is in a museums best interest to refer to this guide when making the decision of displaying human remains. You can never be too careful with this delicate issue.
There are many reasons for displaying human remains in museums. The most prominent seems to be for educational purposes. Displays of human remains can be aimed at audiences such as medical practitioners, people in the science or history industry (or students of those subjects), and it’s also a way to educate the public on burial practices of various cultures. An example of this would be the London Bog Bodies exhibit that was held at the Museum of London in 1998.
In the London Bog Bodies exhibit the curators were aware that since London is a very culturally diverse city people with non-western views about death and burials might be attending. They had multiple notices outside the exhibit to warn visitors and clearly identified the subject matter of the exhibition on those notices. They also did not allow unaccompanied children or young school groups into the exhibition. In addition all the skeletons on display and in storage were treated respectfully and only handled by professionals. Their aim was to bring scholarly study to maximum public awareness. There were very few comments saying that the remains were displayed unethically.
Another major reason for displaying human remains is to bring present and future generations into contact with past people. Museums can heighten the power or sense of sacredness of human remains. They also have the ability to neutralize what some might consider disturbing material into a recognizable framework as to offer a way for the public to connect and construct a dialogue with past generations.
Regarding the other side of the argument, a major issue with displaying human remains is whether or not they were acquired from indigenous peoples in colonial circumstances. In the past many human remains were often acquired under conditions of unequal relationships and this is something that curators must consider in order to not upset a particular culture or the ancestors of the deceased. It’s a common belief that human remains acquired unethically should not be displayed. Another argument against this practice is that many ancestors are against the display of human remains from their cultures. As a result there is an increasing trend of removing human remains from museums and returning them to their countries of origin often for reburial.
An example of the removal of human remains from a museum would be the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. They had a case where a visiting member of the Maori community had requested the removal of a Maori Moko Mokai (tattooed head). This had been on permanent display at the museum and was replaced with text explaining what they were and why they had been removed. After that the museum began to redisplay cases to ensure that cultural information was communicated well and that displays are respectful to both the living and the dead.
When considering displaying human remains it all comes down to the question of whether or not it’s ethical. A unified attitude will most likely never be reached, but present day museums are making an effort to seek ethical correctness and extend it to every aspect of displaying human remains. Museum professionals are striving to create a dialogue between themselves and indigenous people from a position of equality. In her article “The Ethics of Displaying Human Remains From British Archeological Sites”, Hedley Swain describes the process of study, storage, and exhibition of human remains by saying, “Many of us sense that it may not be quite right. We cannot identify or articulate exactly why, so we compromise. We do it, but with due respect.” (Swain, 2002)
Swain, H., 2002. The Ethics of Displaying Human Remains from British Archeological Sites. The Journal of Public Archeology 02, 95-100