The Controversy of Human Remains in Museums

Throughout history there has been a fascination with death and the preservation of the human body which is indicative of an interest in the bizarre and unorthodox practices found throughout the world. This fascination undoubtedly has continued into the modern world, with examples of such an interest in death and the preservation of the deceased present in both our current media and popular culture. This interest in preserving the remains of the deceased has been an extremely fundamental part of the progression of human knowledge, most importantly regarding our understanding of the human anatomy as well as the cultural practices of long gone civilizations. [Page, 2011]

This fascination wholly outdates the introduction of modern museums, regarded to have been properly established sometime during the 17th Century. Humans have collected objects that they deem important for as long as recorded history can show. It is not exactly clear as to why this is the case; objects may be collected for personal pleasure, to be used as tools of education, or to act as monuments to a time gone by. Long before the idea of public museums human beings have collected objects and as the years have gone by technological advances mean more and more examples of human remains can be discovered and in turn preserved for study and display. [Hooper-Greenhill, 1992]

It is no surprise that museums have developed over time to become home to these preserved remains, providing a platform for academic research and acting as a leisurely past time for the general public. Human remains on display in museums are capable of invoking wonder and excitement, and perhaps most importantly they are tools of education. Our knowledge of cultures, such as that of Ancient Egypt, would be far less without the mummified remains of their dead, or those bodies preserved through natural effects such as the Lindow Man, a body preserved in a peat bog for almost 2,000 years, which provide us with invaluable information regarding Iron Age humans. Because of this, human remains occupy a unique place in museum collections. Their importance with regards to scientific and historical understanding means they are classified under numerous categories, such as medical, religious, and ethnographic. [Antoine et al, 2014]

One important aspect of museums to address is how and why it is that human remains are an integral part of their exhibitions and can be found in multiple areas of a museum.  For example, human remains can be acquired via archaeological excavations, which often means that the remains in question were a part of a ceremonial burial site belonging to an ancient culture. More recent excavations can unearth historical remains, for example excavations at battlefields or known graveyards. Excavations such as these are important with regards to understanding the practices of past human cultures and civilisations, whilst other classifications, such as medical, refer to when human remains are excavated and used as specimens for scientific research. Often these remains can be utilised by medical institutions and in recent times have grown in popularity with the public, and are therefore shown in public museum displays. [Giesen, 2013] An example of this would be the skeleton of Joseph Merrick, better known as the Elephant Man, whose remains are kept at the Royal London Hospital Museum and Archives for medical study. [Howell and Ford, 2001]



The skeleton of Joseph Merrick at the Royal London Hospital Museum


Preserving human remains in a museum is, however, not without issues. These issues arise from the unique nature of human remains in comparison to other objects that are kept in museum collections. Writing for the American Institute for Conservation with regards to the treatment of human bones by museums, Gays S. McGowan, and Cheryl J. LaRoche assert that the use of human remains by museums often results in “direct conflict.” The authors attribute this conflict to “the dual cultural and scientific values of human bone. It is this duality that frequently leaves professional and lay communities at cross purposes. Cultural concerns for the sacred, spiritual, and metaphysical significance of human remains can be antithetical to the scientific approach, which subjects the remains to physical and chemical analyses.” McGowan and LaRoche, because of this, regard human remains as “distinct from any other materials we treat as conservators.” [Mcgowan, LaRoche, 1996]

The acquisition and display of human remains must also serve a purpose. For example, Alexandra Fletcher, a curator at the British Museum states that “there is no justification for the voyeuristic display of human remains simply as objects of morbid curiosity. As in storage, displays of human remains must acknowledge that the remains were once a living person and respect this fact. Human remains should not be displayed if they are not central to the information being conveyed.” The difference between human remains and other objects on display in museums, such as ancient pottery or fossilised plant life, means careful consideration is required when deciding when the display of human remains is necessary. [Fletcher, 2014]

Ethical standards must be adhered to when conserving human remains in museums; often human remains can be viewed as sacred objects and because of this great care must be taken to ensure not to offend certain visitors, whilst the very nature of these remains (being organic) requires great care to be taken with regards to their preservation. Because of the importance of the preservation of human remains and the difficulties presented in displaying them as part of exhibitions, there are multiple organisations that address this issue and in turn provide ethical guidelines for museums to follow. Examples of these organisations that provide a code of ethics include The Museums Association, The American Institution for Conservation, and the International Council of Museums. The following part of this essay will look at the codes of ethics supplied by some institutions in order to further understand the necessary procedures to be undertaken when dealing with the acquisition, storage, display, and disposal of human remains.

According to The Museums Association, over the past few years the ways in which UK museums are able to treat human remains within their collections have been altered. One of the biggest issues regarding human remains being kept in museums is that these remains are of once living, breathing people. It is easy to forget that the remains being kept in collections more often than not are done so without the express permission of the person these remains ultimately belong to. In tandem with the Museums Association, The Department for Culture, Media and Sport states that “traditionally in the United Kingdom human remains are treated with respect. No particular sacred or symbolic importance is associated with the remains themselves, except in the case of direct descendants, the remains of major historical figures, or as the focus of collective memorial, such as war dead.” The DCMS continues, acknowledging that the very nature of these remains “places a special responsibility on those museums that hold them.” Whilst many of these specimens are used to further knowledge in fields such as the history of disease and medicine, the DCMS is aware that some examples of remains were taken from “Indigenous peoples in colonial circumstances, where there was a very uneven divide of power.” [DCMS, 2005]

These “indigenous peoples,” such as Australian Aboriginals, argue that their ancestor’s remains do not belong in museums. As early as the 1990s UK museums have been returning these remains to their original places of rest, whilst other institutions have only begun this process recently. One of the biggest issues facing museums with regards to the returning of human remains was the difficulty in having these objects deaccessioned. This issue was addressed in 2004 via Section 47 of the Human Tissue Act which regulates “the removal, storage and use of human tissue for listed activities.” Section 47 also empowered 9 museums with the ability to de-accession objects of such a nature when they belong to a person who is “reasonably believed to have died less than 1000 years before the date that Section 47 comes into force.” Before this, museums had great difficulty in de-accessioning human remains except for under special circumstances. [DCMS, 2005] These changes mean that it is now much easier for these museums to deaccession human remains that belonged to their collections, which are often sent back to their countries of origin.

Another interesting point of contention regarding human remains is the idea of whether or not it is possible to actually own these remains. For example, the laws of England and Wales “do not recognise the concept of property in human bodies or tissue.” Therefore, it is a difficult task for those lobbying for the de-accession of human remains to legally assert their ownership over them, and in turn the same can be said for museums. At the moment, the idea of legally owning human remains is a controversial area that has at least been made somewhat more straight forward in the United Kingdom since the introduction of Section 47, allowing the process of de-accessioning such objects to be a much easier task than it has been in the past.

Another establishment that provides its own code of ethics regarding the collecting and display of human remains is the International Council of Museums. Much like the Museums Association, the International Council of Museums provides guidelines on the acquisition, handling, and display of human remains in exhibitions. The code of ethics provided by the International Council of Museums state that human remains should only be acquired if it is possible for them to be “housed securely and cared for respectfully.” By respectfully the code ethics refers to acknowledging the origins of the objects, such as the “religious groups from which the objects originated.” This idea of respecting the origins of human remains related objects continues as the code of ethics discusses the use of objects for “establishing and furthering knowledge.” Again, human remains are to be treated with “professional standards… (taking) into account the interests of the community, ethnic or religious groups from whom the objects originated” whilst research is carried out upon them. Whilst human remains are to be put on display as part of a museum exhibition fall under the category of “sensitive materials,” again asserting that the origins of the object must be taken into account, and efforts made so as to present them to the visiting public with “great tact and respect for the feelings of human dignity felt by all peoples.” [ICOM, 2013]

By looking at the International Council of Museum’s code of ethics regarding human remains, it is at once apparent that there is an extreme difference in the logistics behind displaying such objects of a sensitive nature, in contrast to, for example, objects deemed “unprovenanced.” For such unprovenanced objects the biggest issue is the risk of the museum being seen to contribute “to the illicit trade in cultural property.” Here there is no mention of ‘respect’ or ‘dignity felt by all peoples.’ Human remains occupy a unique place in the collections of museums and because of this come with their own unique issues that must be handled carefully so as not to offend or upset visitors.  [ICOM, 2013]

Although there are many codes of ethics for museums to follow when dealing with human remains, this is not to say that there are no controversies regarding this topic. As mentioned earlier, the unique nature of human remains within museum collections means that conflict of interest between opposing parties is almost inevitable. The next part of this essay will examine some case studies that shed light on how museums have reacted when faced with such issues and how, if at all, these issues were resolved. An academic work that will feature heavily in this next part of the essay is Tiffany Jenkins’ Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections, as this work focuses on the issues faced by museums when certain groups of museum visitors retaliate against the methods in which human remains are collected and displayed.

An article published by The Guardian in October 2010 details issues faced by multiple museums in Britain regarding the displaying of human remains. Titled “Museums avoid displaying human remains ‘out of respect’” the article refers to the idea that museums are unwilling to display certain objects because of fears of offending certain minority groups among visitors and discusses similar issues raised in Jenkins’ Contesting Human Remains. The article describes museum exhibitions that display human remains as having to resort to altering display methods so that visitors were spared having to view these objects. For example, Jenkins asserts that some museums, such as Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, have resorted to displaying human remains in “dark cases that have to be illuminated by pressing a button, displayed with warning notices or (have) been taken off display completely.” Other examples include “bones showing rickets… taken off display at the Museum of London,” as well as “the head of an iron age bog body, Worsley Man, removed at Manchester University Museum.” Manchester University Museum is also known to have used sheets to cover displays containing mummies, but these sheets were removed “after public protest.” [The Guardian, 2010]

It is interesting to see that public protest is what eventually made the Manchester University Museum uncover its displays, begging the question as to what is was that made them cover them up in the first place. It is safe to assume that major public pressure was not the reason as to why these mummies were covered in the first place, and Jenkins believes that the covering was as a result of “professional insecurity,” and argues that the museum, and the profession as a whole, is “over-reacting to the claims of small minority groups, such as the pagan organisation ‘Honoring the Ancient Dead.’ Curiously, the profession does not take into account the feelings of other pagan groups who advocate the use of human remains in research and display, such as Pagans for Archaeology.” Then why exactly is it that museums are reacting to the complaints made by a small minority group? It would be understandable if the majority of visitors to a museum felt offended by certain displays containing human remains, yet a recent Historic England (formerly English Heritage) survey recorded that “only 9% of people absolutely opposed museums displaying human bones,” whilst over half supported these displays “regardless of the age of the bones.”  27% of those who took the survey supported these museums “if the bones were more than a century old.” [] It is obvious from these findings then that the majority of museum visitors do not take offence to the display and collecting of human remains as long as the treatment of them is ethical, yet still museums, rather than promoting exhibitions containing human remains, are putting up signs to ‘warn’ visitors of these objects. Jenkins states that such a stance adopted by museums is very unfortunate; it is clear from surveys that the visiting public want to see exhibitions containing human remains, yet museums are penalising “millions of people who enjoy learning from the display of human remains,” which in turn will make it “more difficult to study this important material.” [Jenkins, 2010]

In conclusion, it is clear that the subject of human remains being collected and displayed by museums is a potentially controversial topic. The vast amount of ethical codes adopted by museums and related establishments is evidence that this topic is a delicate area and needs to be handled discreetly and with respect. The unique position that human remains hold within museum collections has resulted in them being treated unlike any other category of object, and it is no surprise as these objects in question were once living people who had lives and emotions of their own. From the research undertaken to complete this essay, I would argue that museums, such as the British Museum, have thus far handled issues concerning human remains in their collections well by following their code of ethics, ensuring that respect is given to these objects at all times. It is also important to understand that there are some groups who do not agree with the ways in which museums have acquired and display human remains regardless of any efforts made by museums to approach the issue, and actions such as the implementation of Section 47 reflect on how museums are attempting to adapt to an ever changing social and political climate. There is no definitive answer for how human remains should be handled within a museum environment, and I believe Alexandra Fletcher summarises the issue of human remains in museums well with her quote; “There is no final word on such matters and no doubt the decisions made today will seem as out of step with current thinking in the future, as do decisions made by earlier generations of museum workers 50, 100 and in some cases 200 years ago. Looking after human remains in museums will therefore continue as a respectful balancing act across the boundaries of ethics, learning and access.” [Fletcher, 2014]

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