Skeletons in the Closet:
A Blog about Ethical Handling and Storage of Human Remains in the Conservation Community
“Shake your Money Maker: Human Remains on Display”
Museums face challenging concerns everyday such as: ‘How do we keep the doors open and the lights on?’ ‘How do we keep people coming here?’ ‘How can we compete with amusement parks and roller coasters?’ A time tested crowd pleaser (in the western world) since the Enlightenment has been the display of complete or partial human remains. Everyone loves an Egyptian mummy, right? Human remains can be political symbols, personal connections to the past, high price commodities, religious relics, research materials, and the list goes on. Problems arise when cultural approaches to human remains differ. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer to displaying human remains. Museum curators, exhibit designers, and conservators have to be extremely careful and sensitive when deciding what should or should not be on display for the public.
The display of human remains in a museum setting, as we think of it, is closely tied to the scientific revolution and colonial exploration. People were fascinated by people and things that were different than the ‘known’ plants, animals, and people. Museum displays were for the strange, the macabre, and the exotic. In the scientific community, doctors were discovering the way the body and diseases worked and demanded bodies for their research. Bodies became commodities used for profit. This way of thinking led to larger establishments curating large collections of human remains from around the world. Over the years more marginable groups’ wishes have been acknowledged (ex. NAGPRA), but there is still an obvious power dynamic. Who actually owns the body? Should the wishes of the individual take precedent or the wishes of the family, the group, or the public? These are all challenges faced by conservators. (Cassman, Odegaard, and Powell 2007)
Most bodies in museums are presented as objects for study. The western way of thinking linearly and secularly helps distance people from the remains they are viewing, temporally and geographically. People are separated physically and sensually from the remains by glass cases. At the same time, thinking of bodies as objects can be seen as separating the viewer from acknowledging our own mortality. One way some institutions help the public connect to remains as individuals is by naming them. Some places also do reconstructions (though highly interpretive) of skeletal remains, so it is easier for the public to acknowledge the humanity of the remains. (Cassman, Odegaard, and Powell 2007)
Today, museums and conservators have become more culturally sensitive to the wishes of more marginal groups and the various interests surrounding bodies in their collections. It is an effective way to encourage interest in exhibits and connect the public to their own past. Conservators in particular should assist museums that choose to have human remains on display presenting them in safe, lasting, yet emotionally accessible ways.
Cassman, Vicki, Nancy Odegaard, and Joseph Powell ed. 2007. Human Remains: Guide for Museums and Academic Institutions. AltaMira Press. Lanham: 261-283.