I have visited the British museum twice in my life. Both times it was obviously as busy as any other tourist sight might be, people coming from all over the world to see the unique collections and plenty of them taking photographs to commemorate the occasion. Museums have brought us the chance to see things we would never would have. A cultural hub all conveniently housed under one roof. On my fist visit as a child I was caught up in the curiosity of it all, the wonders from Greece and Egypt that I’d read so much about as a child, at this age I knew of the controversies but didn’t feel the full weight of them. Returning as an adult I still enjoyed the experience and knew about the work that had taken place over the ten years since my last visit to improve the ethics of displays. However one thing plays on my mind, a long standing debate. Is it Ethical to display human remains? Even if so, what is the correct way to treat them?
Museums have a long and strange history, before we began conveniently housing displays under one roof, oddities of science and history where displayed in privet collections that would be given public display at shows or exhibitions controlled by wealthy collectors keen to share- Or make money and social credit. With the growth of the middle class in the 19th century more people had the time and income to visit such shows and as such they really took off. Events like The Great Exhibition of 1851 attracted 6 million visitors while traveling shows in Europe. The British Museum was established in a similar vein after Sir Hans Slone left his personal collections to the George II ‘for the nation’. Subsequent acts of parliament established this into law. The British Museum would not belong to church or crown but the people who would be able to visit the collection at Montagu house from 1759. Over the century many additions would be made to this museum and others would blossom.
As of 2007 the Natural History Museum (London) held 20,000 remains combined in display and archives. Exhibits directly framed around human bodies have drawn huge crowds, London Bodies (1998, The Museum of London) attracted 70,000 visitors in the four month span of its display. The exhibit held 18,000 remains which served as a time line of the people of London from Rome to Victorian. Additionally, surveys carried out by English heritage in 2018 reported that only 9% of those asked had an issue with human remains being on display. Obviously, the curiosity is very much alive and well- making them excellent for gaining public notoriety and funding for museum bodies.
Clearly, what we can learn from studying human remains is outstanding. Diet, illness, lifestyle and even their manner of burial tell us a great deal about the past and can even help modern medical science in the study of disease. The study and collection of cadavers was rampant in the 19th Century, many of the collections eventually working their way to museums after having been reserved strictly for academic study by doctors, historians, and students. But the innovation of viewing them for ourselves allows us to have a much more visual connection to our past and archiving offers future generations to preform further studies.
But what of the ethics and morality? Sometimes it’s easy to forget that these where once people. In some cases, ‘personhood’ was ignored in the pursuit of study. You need look no further than the use of grave robbing, the unclaimed bodies of criminals and those with no kin being taken for medical research in the 19th century to see this. The issue that museums now wrangle with is how we handle human remains respectfully and consideration to where they came from. According to the Human Tissue Act (2006) human remains under 100 years old require the consent of living relatives to be collected, but those over 100 years old are exempt from this rule. But this does not mean that it’s a case of ‘finders keepers’ with older remains. The concerns of the communities from which the remains came from are within their rights to make a claim against a museum for the return of the remains or change in presentation. This has been particularly relevant issue in the context of bodies taken by European museums from other territories.
Artifacts from cultures unlike our own invite’s curiosity. The Victorians used to line up to see curiosities from afar while scientists held the elitist view that they could handle the study better. Until recent decades those who lost their cultural artifacts did not have much of a voice. This is a particularly emotive when remains are concerned. These are their people, taken from their land, in some cases stollen from their graves or taken before even receiving a proper burial. Only last year Germany returned the remains of 37 indigenous people to Australia. The remains of a Yidinji king where among them, returning 150 years after being stollen during his burial ceremony for ‘Race research’. The way bodies and relics where collected also has an impact on society, making the remains feel like objects or caricatures of the people they ‘represent’. Which can contribute to feelings of dismissal and prejudice to a culture. In the emotive words of the Mi’kmaq chief, Misel Joe “Maybe what I need to do is go and dig up Robert Burns. Maybe that will open somebody’s eyes? I mean, what’s the difference in me going to dig up Burns and bringing him back to study in Newfoundland than them taking the remains of our people to study for all these years?”
The pattern of returning bodies has been increasing since the 70’s but is still not simple. Despite legislation put in place in the 1990’s to remove the remains of indigenous American’s from museums in the USA, the Smithsonian, as of 2010, have only returned 5,000 of these indigenous remains. This is a complex issue, in some cases remains may not have a claim made to them or known group for them to be turned over to. Sometimes this is due to their people not knowing these remains are being held- in the case of looting or having been stolen and sold under false presses. Withholding remains can be darker. The remains of ‘Charles Byrne’, an Irishman born in 1761 who had had gigantism, are still held by the Hunterian Museum. His body had been seized for medical sciences upon his death in 1783 despite the evidence he was greatly against this, even expressing a desire to be buried at sea to avoid grave robbing. Alas his body was stolen when it was on its way to burial and has been on display for decades.
If bodies are to be put on display ethically, with the correct permissions from the community or museum’s ethics board, how can we best do it? All museums now require licenses and have a hefty responsibility of assuring they are properly cared for and preserved without damage, else legal action can be taken. One of the first points to consider is working with historian’s or those from the culture the remains come from to find the most respectful way to display and handle them. Another vital point is to assure that the purpose and meaning of the exhibit is made abundantly clear and reviewed by the museum ethic’s board. Public displays are to be clear in their intention, whether it be to educate people on the history, culture or medical practices related to the remains and must include sufficient supplementary material to better illustrate the relevant information. Another point to consider is placement. Its more common for human remains to be placed in alcoves or partitioned parts of a gallery, usually this is done to pay respect to the visitors and the deceased. It reduces crowding and gives people the opportunity to observe other parts of the display without making the remains themselves a spectacle.
Ultimately the display and collection of human remains in museums is a we rightfully must be done with the upmost caution, with all legal and cultural ramifications considered. It is far more than a matter of respecting the dead. It is a case of being considerate of the cultures that they once lived in and their descendants. History should be about promoting awareness, education, and cultural engagement. We must not reduce it to ‘othering’ or turning something into a spectacle that makes us forget the inherit humanity of history.