Morbid Museums: The Ethics of Displaying Human Remains

By Elizabeth Lesko

(Paris Catacombs – By Vlastula at the English language Wikipedia)

If you’re anything like me, you love a good museum. Most cities in the world have at least a local history museum to their name, and an afternoon spent wandering through one can be a great way to learn about a culture. Since beginning my journey through the biomedical sciences, I’ve found a growing interest in museums of the medical and macabre – such as the International Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago, or the Mütter Museum in nearby Philadelphia. However, visiting these museums raised some questions that had never occurred to me through years of staring at bog bodies or Egyptian mummies in natural history museums: How did these remains come to be gawked at by the visiting masses in the first place? Is it ethical to display what was once a person in the same manner one would display an object? How would someone even consent to such a thing? While questions of ethics cannot be easily answered in the space of one blog post, I can at least hope to herein provide some insight on the history and current philosophy on displaying human remains.

The Disreputable Origins of Museum Collections

It’s no secret that many of the most famous museums in the world are populated by objects “procured” during centuries of colonialism, and it should therefore come as little surprise that collections of human remains frequently share these origins. The Napoleonic conquests of the late 18th century, coupled with industrialization, lead to unprecedented access of Westerners to foreign cultures and, consequently, a burgeoning Western fascination with antiquity. Colonialism and the idea of white supremacy were in full force during this time, so the artifacts (and human remains) of ancient cultures were plundered without a second thought and taken back to Western Europe or the United States for study and display. At the peak of Victorian era tourism in Egypt, mummies were sold as souvenirs, and wealthy individuals were known to hold “unwrapping parties” 1. This lack of respect for the ancient Egyptian dead was by no means a new concept, as mummified remains had been raided for use as medicine (mumiya), pigment (mummy brown), fertilizer, or fuel for centuries1. The situation in the United States was even worse, with scientists seeking to prove racial superiority through the collection and study of Native American remains2. Ancestral human remains as well as those of the recently deceased were taken and displayed by archaeologists and anthropologists from across the Americas with blatant disregard to the wishes of the deceased or their descendants. It wasn’t until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act3 that followed in 1990 that many of these remains were removed from museums and returned to their families.

From Grave Robbery to Voluntary Donation

Clearly, the origins of archaeology were rife with what we would now consider to be grave robbery. With the fall of Nazism in the mid-20th century came the rise of Civil Rights and a turn of public opinion against the concept of white supremacy. What followed was a drastic change of policy towards the collection and display of pilfered artifacts and human remains2. Permission to display existing collections was sought from their countries and cultures of origin. As mentioned, many museums have at least begun to return artifacts and remains from Indigenous peoples of the Americas and Australia, but Egyptian mummies were not often repatriated. The infrequent requests for the return of Egyptian artifacts and mummies were aimed towards displaying these pieces of history in Egyptian museums, rather than for the purposes of proper burial or return of remains to families2. Now, most human remains in museums (including the bog bodies I mentioned earlier) were disinterred and displayed with the permission of descendants, the individual, or the government where the remains were discovered in the case of ancient remains4.

The Grey Area of Medical Marvels and Oddities

(Harry Eastlack and Carol Orzel, who suffered from FOP – The Mütter Museum(6))

Until this point, I’ve mostly discussed museums displaying what could be considered archaeological or anthropological specimens – those of non-contemporary humans. The ethics of displaying unusual remains of individuals with medical anomalies enters into a greyer area. The main issue here seems to be one of consent: remains of this nature are frequently from individuals with living relatives or who were studied to some extent while they were living, rather than discovered long after death. Bodies or partial remains displayed in museums, such as the “Soap Lady” at the Mütter are sometimes unidentified or of indeterminate origin, rather than donated with explicit consent for display by the individual5. Other skeletons and body parts on display, such as the Mütter’s recently donated skeleton of a Philadelphia woman with Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva (FOP, a disorder where damaged tissue becomes ossified), were indeed donated with explicit consent for display and use as a tool of public education6. Then there is the matter of bodies donated by individuals who might be considered incapable of informed consent, such as individuals with impaired cognitive faculties, or fetal/infant remains. The exact nature of an individual’s consent to display should also be considered, as many members of the Mütter collection were acquired by Dr. Mutter for teaching purposes and later donated to the Philadelphia College of Physicians to create a museum5. Thus, even individuals who may have consented to being utilized for teaching purposes may not have wished to be on public display to thousands of visitors every year.

Is Education an Exception? How about Art?

If you read my previous article7 on the history of anatomy in art, you may remember the Bodies Exhibit (also referred to as Body Worlds) that sparked controversy when it was discovered that the individuals on display may have been executed political prisoners. While the exhibit now only displays bodies with explicit permission from the individuals2, this exhibit raises the questions of whether ethical compromises can be made for the display of human remains for the specific purposes of education or art. The argument that the educational benefits of mummies and other ancient human remains outweigh the moral ambiguity of their acquisition is frequently raised in discussions of repatriation. The unspoken consensus nowadays seems to be that remains can be retained for education if there are no living family members and the government of the body’s origin does not object, so long as the body is displayed in a respectful manner2. This last point is rather ambiguous, as the concept of respectful treatment of remains will naturally vary between cultures and individuals. The use of human bodies in art strongly underlines this question of respectful display when you consider such works as the Paris Catacombs and Sedlec Ossuary, where thousands of bones are used as macabre decorations8,9. While both sites began with the purpose of relocating skeletal remains to make room for new burials, the liberties taken in arranging the bones resulted in thousands of individuals becoming display pieces for millions of tourists. Should such displays be maintained as pieces of history and works of art, or do these tourist attractions demonstrate a lack of respect for the deceased?

While I expect the questions of displaying humans in museums or as art will be debated for quite some time to come, modern technology may soon change the nature of the debate. Improvements in 2D and 3D imaging as well as VR technology could allow museums to carefully catalog and replicate current exhibits, including mummies and modern human bodies. This would allow for virtual or physical replicas of human remains to be used as teaching tools while permitting the physical remains themselves to be repatriated, interred, or otherwise cared for in a respectful manner. I, for one, am very excited to see what changes museums will take on in the next few years with such advancements in technology. I hope that you get the chance to visit some of the exhibits I’ve discussed, and perhaps ponder for yourselves the ethics of displaying a human body – once it is safe again to do so, of course!

Sources

  1. JM Parra. Europe’s morbid ‘mummy craze’ has been an obsession for centuries. History Magasine. National Geographic. Dec 10, 2019. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/magazine/2019/11-12/egyptian-mummies-in-european-culture/
  2. C Colwell. The Long Ethical Arc of Displaying Human Remains: A look at why museums exhibit Egyptian mummies, but not Native American bones. Atlas Obscura. Nov 16, 2017. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/displaying-native-american-remains
  3. Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act: Facilitating Respectful Return. National Park Service. Nov 22, 2019. https://www.nps.gov/subjects/nagpra/index.htm
  4. A Fletcher, D Antoine, JD Hill (editors). Regarding the Dead: Human Remains in the British Museum. The British Museum. 2014. https://www.britishmuseum.org/our-work/departments/human-remains
  5. D Mancini. Education Vs. Shock Value: Displaying Human Remains. Institute of Museum Ethics Blog. Jan 16, 2020. http://www.museumethics.org/2020/01/education-vs-shock-value-displaying-human-remains/
  6. Mütter Museum Reveals New Exhibit: Philadelphia Woman’s Skeleton With Rare Bone Disease. The Mutter Museum. Mar 5, 2019. http://muttermuseum.org/news/new-exhibit-FOP/
  7. E Lesko. A Brief History of Anatomy as Told Through Art. Lions Talk Science Blog. Sep 30, 2020. https://lions-talk-science.org/2020/09/30/a-brief-history-of-anatomy-as-told-through-art/
  8. Sedlec Ossuary. Sedlec Ossuary. 2020. https://sedlecossuary.com/
  9. Les Catacombes de Paris: The History of the Catacombs. Musée Carnavalet – l’Histoire de Paris. 2018. https://www.catacombes.paris.fr/en/history

Full image credit:

Image of Paris catacombs Bones from the former Magdeleine cemetery (La Ville Leveque Street numbers 1 and 2). Deposited in 1844 in the western ossuary (bone repository) and transferred to the catacombs in September 1859. By Vlastula at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6693557)

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