As my presentation had two criteria to fulfil which was the discussion of two cases relating to object restitution and the ethics of displaying human remains in UK museums, I immediately set out to do sufficient research in order for me to establish my case studies and relevant areas of discussion. I ordered my presentation by each study I was going to discuss. The first study, being the Parthenon Marbles, was perhaps the most famous of my cases relating to restitution so in that sense it was something of a challenge for me to concisely sum up the argument for and against the return of the objects to Greece. Given the time limit of my presentation, I chose to include the simplest to understand rationale for both the arguments relating to the marbles. I also included an opinion poll, which was in favour of the marbles being returned to Greece. In terms of my second case study relating to restitution, which was the Koh-i-Noor diamond, I found that this example was far more uncomplicated than the Parthenon marbles. The key areas of discussion, which included the long and diverse history of the diamond, helped the understanding of the case and explored the claims of multiple countries over a single object, and the argument about who is the rightful owner of the diamond is, if any.
The second part of my presentation focused on the ethics of the ethics of displaying human remains in UK museums. As the general feeling towards the displaying human remains is in favour of their display, I decided to focus on the opposing sentiment ‘against’ for the first couple of slides, and then in one slide I addressed the most popular ‘for’ argument. The points against that I focused on were the issues of whether human remains were objectified in museums and were seen as sources of information. I supported this argument with the case study of Lindow Man: a bog body found in 1984 in Cheshire. The second point against the display of human remains was whether they were too distressing for people to view in museums. A point that was made in the presentation was that for some of the younger audience the display of human remains, whether a body or simply a skeleton, would perhaps be their first encounter with the reality of death. The negative reactions of some of the public regarding the display of Egyptian mummies in Manchester Museum were addressed. In response to this, the precautions that some museums had taken in terms of the removal of human remains altogether were also highlighted. The last issue against the display of human remains was that of consent. For this, I used the case study of Charles Byrne otherwise known as the ‘Irish Giant’. Against his wishes, his body was sold to the surgeon John Hunter, where his body still resides in the Hunterian museum today.
The last slide, which was the counter claim to the previous against points, looked at the medical advancements that can be had with the study of human remains. The case was also made that the display of human remains allows the public to see human life in its truest form without the superficial differences that can divide the living such as beauty, fat, scars, and ugliness. They can be good sources of information for us to understand how we lived, worked and suffered in the past – something that can help us to understand the world we live in and our health today.
I concluded the presentation by talking about that although the display of human remains in museums do help us to understand the past in a much more stark approach, we also have to be careful of distancing ourselves too much from the truth; that human remains are not simply objects to be studied, but are past lives to be respected.
A question that was brought up in the question-and-answer session afterwards was of any similar cases to Charles Byrne in terms of people being exhibited as ‘freak shows’, and upon their deaths being installed in museums for further enjoyment for the public. I answered the question with the case of Saartjie Baartman, who was one of at least two Khoikhoi women who were exhibited as freak show attractions in nineteenth century Europe. Like Byrne, her remains after her death were exhibited in a museum in France until the later calls for the repatriation of her body to South Africa saw her being moved to her original place of birth. Overall, my presentation examined the main ethical issues surrounding museums and drew on past cases so that we can build on these foundations and experiences in the future.