Interpretation and Ethics: Displaying Human Remains

If you’ve been reading my blog you will know that I don’t believe in making my own opinion known when I interpret.  No matter how contentious the story, I think it’s important to share all the facts, allow room for all the views.  I’m a facilitator, not a dictator of opinions.

I feel that we’re not sharing all the facts when it comes to the ethics of displaying certain artefacts.  And it’s bothering me.  Take the example of displaying human remains.  Some visitors, like the online group that I belong to and who recently discussed the matter at length, are fully aware of the implications when they look at a skeleton.  But I would venture to say that the majority of visitors don’t make the connection between the bag of bones on display and the human dimension behind it.  This was certainly the case when I recently visited the Mary Rose Museum.  It was only when I voiced my personal concerns about displaying all these human remains that the others in my group started to think about it.  Until then they had looked, but not connected: There’s a skull.  A skeleton.  But nothing human here.

As an interpreter, I found this really unsatisfying, not the least because at the very start of the exhibition, the text asked us to connect to the people that perished when the Mary Rose sank.  This exhibition, the text grandly announced, is in memory of all those people, and then these very same people were promptly (as I felt) disrespected by having their remains displayed like circus attractions.

The fact that visitors weren’t at least made aware of the concerns surrounding the displaying of these artefacts to me highlights a real issue with interpretation. Where elsewhere we talk about provoking people [1] and revealing a larger truth, in instances like this (displaying human remains) we seem quite content to not get visitors to ask the most fundamental question of them all: do we have a right to display these artefacts?  What do they really represent (a human life, in this case)?

I really feel that interpretation needs to do more here because the instances where displaying an artefact is contentious are far more numerous than we admit.  I strongly feel that this is part of facilitating visitors’ engagement with something.  From grave goods to indigenous ceremonial pieces, there is more to these artefacts than their material attributes: the disputes over whether they should be displayed, who should display them, how and where (if at all) are integral to understanding the truth behind them [2]. It really isn’t good enough to appeal to our emotional connection with people that died in a shipwreck and then display their remains without even another word about it. It isn’t good enough to display something that was placed in a grave without explaining the hopes and fears that are represented in this artefact and to ask whether we really, really should even have removed it from the grave.

In truth, if it were up to me, we wouldn’t be displaying many of these artefacts, and certainly not human remains.  In the case of the Mary Rose Museum, I would bet you anything that visitors would not even think about the skeletons and skulls if you gave them just the reconstructions – yes, based on the skulls – of people’s faces.  I daresay that’s what interested visitors, and what helped them to connect.  I think the added value of seeing the ‘real thing’ is minimal in these cases, and worth losing altogether compared to the much higher value that not displaying these remains or artefacts in other instances has to those who care [3]. If you will you can argue that in doing so, we as the ‘professionals’ are censoring what goes on display, and that this is against my proclaimed philosophy.  You may be right.  But then, it is my job to tell the whole story, and sometimes that means choosing an alternative means to do so.


[1] I actually really don’t like this term and the notion behind it, but for argument’s sake, lets use it here.

[2] The British Museum made a tiny step in that direction when they produced a leaflet explaining their stance about not returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece.  To me, that is a far more interesting story at this stage than the marbles themselves.

[3] I am aware of BDRC’s 2009 research for English Heritage on the public’s attitude toward displaying human remains.  I don’t think it’s an excuse for uncritically displaying them.  Sorry.

3 thoughts on “Interpretation and Ethics: Displaying Human Remains

  1. I completely agree with you. I’ve been appalled at some of the displays of human remains I’ve seen over the years- one of the worst at the Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago where a “slice” of a person from head to waist(obviously African American) was on display for many years. Hope they have removed it by now. And the Mutter medical museum in Philadelphia has a wallet and book made of human skin that are on display with no explanation or context. I am sure there are many examples like this. Glad you have called attention to the issue.

  2. I have just visited the Mary Rose museum with a museologist [?] from South Africa and the display of human remains is taboo there, although there are probably strong cultural issues there.

    Would a replica be more acceptable – is it the fact of the item being an actual human skull or that it is generally disrepectful to represent a human in that way?

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