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Displaying the Dead: Disrespecting or Honoring the Past?

February 4th, 2013

Displaying the Dead: Disrespecting or Honoring the Past?

Kate Clothier

Going to museums has always brought me happiness. After spending countless hours lost in their different exhibits I would come out feeling more connected to the past cultures and curious to learn about the different societies on display. This interest led me to become an avid history reader and museum patron. When I was older I was shocked to learn that there was one specific controversial issue surrounding museum exhibits internationally. The ethics of displaying human bodies. Should museums be able to put the deceased on display for the public and who has the rights to the bodies once they are discovered?

I was always torn on the answer to these questions. For me, the people on display spurred reverence and curiosity, for others the displays served as symbols of disrespect to our ancestral heritage. This division of thinking persists today and was even the subject of ethical debate at the 2010 conference of the International Council of Museums (ICOM)- Committee for Conservation conference. Large nationally recognized organizations are facing the ethics of displaying the deceased in attempt to find common ground but the debate rages on. There is no ‘cure all’ for the questions at hand.

It has been suggested that the direct descendants should get the finally say on whether the bodies should be on display, but what if there are no direct descendants? Who then has the right to decide? Where is the quest for information on the human past to stop and, would we dig up cemeteries for knowledge? To me, the best solution is to stick to the ethical guidelines created by organizations like the ICOM in reference to past societies and what they left behind (Brajer, I. 2010. “Human Remains in Museums.” International Council of Museums- Theory and History of Conservation Working Group, Accessed: Web. 21 Jan. 2013). These bodies can offer us insight to the past that would otherwise be unknown and can even spark interest the societies themselves, as was the case for me. I believe the bodies should be treated with upmost respect and if a direct link to a current society is found or known of, those people should get the final say in whether the body can be displayed or not. The ethics surrounding human remains being put on display is sure to persist for many years to come and museums will continue to be at the forefront of this debate.

 

 

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