Human remains pose many issues for the museums and institutions which hold them. For some the problematic nature of this stems from how they were obtained. Many human remains retained in collections come from 18th and 19th Century excursions and were brought back to Britain as exotic treasures without much concern over whom they belong to (McBrien 2014). Current changes over the last decade have meant that these remains now have a chance of repatriation. However, this would mean that all educational and scientific information held by the material would be lost (Department for Culture, Media and Sport 2005). This therefore forms the basis of the current debate surrounding human remains in museums.
This topic brought about many ethical issues and thought-provoking ideas during our discussion surrounding the ownership of human remains. The whole notion of ownership over human remains is rather a complex one, as museums physically hold the material yet spiritually it is connected to the cultural group to which it belongs. Yet the educational value cannot be underestimated. Considering that with the growth and development of analytical scientific techniques in research on human material, invaluable information about loss and past cultures will be gone. It is a rather difficult issue for the museums to deal with.
The overarching opinion on this matter within our group seemed to lie in the researching of human remains, for the gaining of their educational value, with the technologies available. Followed by a repatriation of the remains to the cultural groups who have spiritual and religious connections to them and can lay them to rest. However in many cases this is not an easy option for the museums in question to take, and is not so clear cut – with some remains holding particular scientific significance resulting in a huge loss for the scientific community. Although moral issues then arise from the culturally linked groups and leads to unrest, and a great feeling of spiritual and religious loss. They feel most strongly that they must lay the remains of their ancestors to rest, so that they can be at peace. The need for repatriation then seems to become paramount. However this almost seems to go against the mission statements set out by museums – that their collections should remain intact for the benefit of present and future generations (White 2014). Highlighting that there is not necessarily a black or white answer regarding what is the correct process for the remains situated in museums, with a lot of grey area and opinionated decisions. Therefore communication with as many different groups is essential to creating a properly informed decision.
Quite a pivotal quote brought up by my presentation came from Director of the National Museums Liverpool, Dr David Fleming, as he asked “How would you feel if your great-grandmother’s remains were lying in a box on a shelf in a museum?” (BBC News 2009). This takes the issue to a more personal level by placing visitors in the place of the cultural groups, while they are still immersed in a world fueled by scientific discovery and progression. Other institutions like the Pitt River’s Museum are less open with their public and instead are much more internal with their opinions on repatriation, but on the whole they stick more with their mission statement and aim to hold the remains in their collection so that they can be studied with new technologies and used to educated future generation (White 2014).
To conclude, it can be seen that human remains do pose many ethical issues for the museums and institutions which hold them due to the sensitivity of their nature. It therefore is ultimately down to the museum itself as to what should be done regarding this material. The importance of communication however cannot be stressed enough, as in order to gain an informed decision surrounding the remains of a once living human; it is paramount to be aware of the opinions of the wider public and all other groups of people to whom this issue affects.
BBC News, 2009. Museum Return Aboriginal Remains. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/merseyside/8047223.stm
Department for Culture, Media and Pport, 2005. Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums. Supported by: Museums, Libraries and Archives Council; Museums Association; Welsh Assembly Government; Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure.
McBrien, M. 2014. Ethical Debate: Human Remains. Museums Association
White, K. 2014. Human Remains in the Pitt Rivers Museum. Oxford. http://www.prm.ox.ac.uk/human.html.