There is always controversy when considering the ethics and politics of displaying human remains in museums. With many groups advocating against the display of remains, there is still a large majority that argue for leaving remains on display. Museums have to walk a tight rope in regards to the ethics and politics involved in displaying these sensitive exhibits.
Museums need to consider the different cultural beliefs of various communities that the remains belong to. This includes the worldviews of dualism, materialism, and animism. Communities such as Christianity, Atheism, Pagans, Aborigines, Maori, Native Americans, among others use these beliefs as a basis in the treatment of their dead.
In addition to the philosophical beliefs of different cultures, museums also need to consider their actions towards human remains on display in their institutes. This is where ethics come into play.
Museums need to consider multiple issues in regards to remains on display including: the initial obtainment of the remains, putting a modern voice to the dead, treatment of remains as objects or ‘things’, the limitations of developments in the study of the body, reasoning for retaining the remains in the museum, and ultimately the consideration of the cultural, spiritual, and religious significance of the remains.
There have been a few examples within the UK of questionable ethics regarding museums displaying remains.
One example of this is the O’Brien Giant located in the Hunterian Museum in London. Multiple first-hand accounts claim that he wanted to be buried at sea in order to avoid being dissected and tested by surgeons after he died. His body was bought through bribery and has been located in the museum for over 200 years. The museum claims that there is no written record of his wishes, yet even so, could a cast skeleton not be made and put on display instead of his body?
The second example would be considering the remains of mummies that are on display in numerous museums around the UK. We should consider the basic idea of the tombs mummies were originally discovered in. They were elaborate with sealed doors, riddles, hidden passageways, concealed entrances, and massive structures built to keep them inside and to remain a secret.
In an opposing argument, you could debate that having human remains displayed in museums aids in increasing audience attendance, uncovering the unvarnished truth about past cultures, and allowing for the accessibility of adolescent visitors who are still cultivating their intellectual minds and developing their potential interest in science.
An example of human remains showing aspects of world cultures is the Pitt Rivers Museum display case on Treatment of the Dead. The numerous remains in this display (including mummifications, skulls showing body modification, trepanning, religious practices, etc) exemplify anthropological study and research that can be learned from the displaying of remains. It also brings to light the cross-cultural comparison of how different cultures treat their dead and their dead enemies.
There is also the consideration of the audience appeal that museums achieve by exhibiting remains. There is an inevitable interest by the majority of visitors when presented with human remains on display. In this regard, the ultimate question the museum needs to ask themselves is: “What is it that you can say about the past or another culture which you can only say by having human remains on display?” (J.D. Hill, of the British Museum).
I find this particular subject intriguing, as you need to consider the anthropological context of the remains such as: what communities they came from and what their beliefs may have been in regards to their burial. After the research was undertaken for this assignment, I must conclude that while I understand both sides of the argument for displaying remains, I would ultimately have to agree with the debate against the display of remains. While I do understand the intrigue and excitement that visitors experience when seeing a real body behind the glass, I have to consider the beliefs and desires of the body over the fascination of viewing an authentic display of human remains.
In reference to J.D. Hill’s question I proposed earlier: there is always another way to explain the past or another culture without human bodies being on display. This can include making replicas or cast copies of said remains, which numerous museums in the UK have already started doing, such as the Museum of London, the Ashmoleon Museum, the Museum of Liverpool, and the Manchester Museum.