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Reverence and Objectification

March 20th, 2013

Reverence and Objectification

The Issue of Conserving and Incorporating Human Remains Within the 9/11 Museum

 Jeremy Borrelli 

            Within archaeology, conservation, and museum curation one of the most difficult decisions that must be made is what to do with human remains when uncovered. This has been an on-going ethical issue for the field that resulted in the passing of laws such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990. It is often the case within archaeology, however, that the remains are hundreds, if not thousands of years old and it is the ancestral ties between contemporary Native Americans and their predecessors that facilitates their claim to the remains. What about modern remains?

After completing four years of undergraduate study at a school merely forty minutes from New York City (NYC) I grew to love the big city. As a native of upstate New York, with relatives who live in NYC the events that happened on September 11, 2001 are especially poignant for me. As I continued to visit the city in recent years I watched as the World Trade Center (WTC) Memorial was slowly being built. One of the issues surrounding that memorial is what to do with the 9,041 bone fragments that have been recovered from the fallen towers. These fragments belong to the 1,123 unidentified victims from the tragedy. The bones and what little tissue remained were dehydrated for preservation by the medical examiner who is still sorting through the pieces trying to find matches, which has not been accomplished since 2009 (Hartocollis 2011). Now, officials from the Memorial are planning on placing those remains behind a wall with a sentimental quote for visitors to pay their respects at. This has gained some support, but has also sparked debate amongst many of the victim’s families who do not want their loved ones displayed as a tourist attraction.

The ethical issues surrounding the display of WTC victims have to do with notions of memorialization and objectification. Brooks and Rumsey (2008) argue that displaying bodies can serve as connection of the past with the present, the dead with the living, while also rendering them ambivalent: as both persons and things (261). This is reflected in the arguments presented on the side of the victims’ families who do not want the remains used as a lure for tourists. Because these were actual human remains and not just material culture, they add to the effect it has on visitors to those museums. The question is where to draw the line between material culture or cultural remains versus human remains.

As it becomes commonplace to investigate more recent events, and subsequently uncover more recently deceased remains, there is an increased chance that descendents, relatives, or other direct stakeholders in those remains will need to have a say in what happens to the remains. In the case of the WTC Memorial and museum, the actual event the people lost are still very much in the minds of those stakeholders. To use the bodies in a museum context is unwarranted in this case. Instead, the remains should be separate from the museum in a setting more akin to Arlington Cemetery, which is treated as hallowed grounds. These issues raised from the case of the WTC Memorial are incredibly complex and are relevant to all who deal with human remains on a regular basis.


Brooks, M., and C. Rumsey. 2007. The Body in the Museum. In Human Remains: Guide for Museums and Academic Institutions, ed. V. Cassman et al. AltaMira Press. Lanham: 261-289.

Hartocollis, A. For 9/11 Museum, Dispute Over Victims’ Remains. The New York Times, April 1, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/03/nyregion/03remains.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1& (Accessed 02/16/2013).

For more information on NAGPRA visit: http://www.nps.gov/nagpra/

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