Human remains collections in British Museums over the last 200-300 years have been an important aspect of cultural heritage, however, there have been ethical dilemmas surrounding their curation and display for several reasons. Issues arise particularly in relation to public sensitivities, ethics, and the way in which the human remains were acquired i.e. was there consent from the donor or the family of the donor? With the rise of modern medical exhibits such as Body Worlds by Gunther von Hagens gaining millions of visitors worldwide, controversy surrounding human remains display has grown. So how do the public really feel about the display of human remains, and what are the main issues that arise?
*Disclaimer: This blog post is only intended as a short overview of some important points- a full debate would be much longer, and excellent detailed sources can be found on the subject elsewhere.
Where have these remains come from?
Several factors surrounding the acquisition of human remains are controversial. One in particular is the expansion of colonial territories, and the addition of specimens acquired by ‘colonial agents’. These ‘curiosities’ may have been considered acceptable as they were displayed in a time when there were even ‘living curiosities’ on show. Colonialist ties to human remains have resulted in numerous museums beginning the repatriation process, after years of pressure from campaigners. There remains however, collections still with colonialist ties in museums today.
During the 18th and 19th centuries there were cases of ‘resurrectionists’. These were paid body snatchers that would exhume fresh corpses at the behest of paying surgeons and doctors. The trade was rife in London and Edinburgh (with Burke and Hare the most famous of these snatchers), as the only legal way to obtain a corpse was if it was one of an executed criminal. Another point to make here is the legal system was very different from today – many of those executed were only guilty of petty crimes done out of desperation. Despite the introduction of the Anatomy Act in 1832, there have still been concerns surrounding the use of unclaimed bodies from workhouses after this time, but it must be said that some of the bodies were indeed claimed with consent (but how informed was that consent? Where professionals offering desperate family members payment for their dead loved one?).
Evidently, with such dubious origins highlighted, it is no wonder there has been some questioning as to the whether some historical remains should be displayed or not. Museums however are constantly working to tackle this issue, perhaps the best may forward is to give a voice to these important pieces of cultural heritage by displaying the remains with their origins listed- even if the truth is unsettling. For the items of unknown origin, perhaps stating this fact along with suggestion as to their origins (whether unsettling or not)? Whatever the case, museums are constantly evolving, and although human remains over 100 years old are not affected under the 2004 HTA, the origins of these specimens are being taken more seriously. Many remains in the British Museum for example, were ‘gifted’ or purchased in the 19th century from places which may have had a complex relationship with death which is different from our own. Even the complex relationship of death in today’s society has been emphasised through modern pagan groups vocalising the need to rebury ancient British remains.
How are they displayed?
Perhaps the most controversial of the plastinated bodies of the Body Worlds exhibit was the sex plastinate. The questions that arose surrounded the remains, besides the displays themselves, was the sex position in which the donors were placed. Many wondered whether the donors and their families realised that this was the position they would be displayed in, highlighting that even when one donates their body that informed consent is still a burning issue. Although Body Worlds was an exhibit, not a museum, the issue of display is still rife and spills over into the heritage sector.
Within museum settings many visitors expect to see human remains on display, particularly skeletal remains. As a rule, displays are often laid out in such a manner that means visitors cannot come across them ‘by accident’. There are signs up warning the visitor if they chose not to view the exhibit. Display conditions should always be environmentally stable to ensure preservation and protection of the remains. This is particularly significant in incidences were specimens have been preserved in alcohol etc. as to prevent the evaporation of the liquid from the containers, thus rendering the specimen vulnerable to decay. The displays should have the aim to educate, explain and encourage conversation and reflection in a healthy manner. Evoking conversation and thought in the case of 18th – 19th century soft tissue allows the rise of ethical questions, as so often the public may feel more detached from older skeletal remains than preserved soft tissue.
The question of what to do with 18th-19th century dated human remains is never easy- particularly when soft tissue is intact as preservation and conservation is required i.e. preserving fluid. Museums and researchers are more and more informed on issues of display and consent- particularly in the wake of the Alder Hey Scandal. What is the right thing to be done with these valuable sources of information? Should they be repatriated out of respect or is it disrespectful to not utilise the information they can give us? Should they be displayed for public viewing in a responsible manner or should they be placed in storage out of view? Is this also a disrespectful way to treat these remains as they are left to sit on a shelf and viewed as obsolete? The answer is not an easy one, and it is vital that heritage institutions continue to dwell on it.