Egyptian mummies used to be among the most popular displays in British museum collections. But their days as a visitor attraction may be numbered.Sound familiar? That’s because the ‘Mail’ reported on this back in October…
Increasingly they are being secreted away by curators, hidden away from the public without consultation.
The practice of using remains as exhibits is under attack from an unlikely source. For what is remarkable about this new sensitivity is that it has not come from public demand, but from the top down – senior curators are writing the policy.And using ‘public perception’ as a fig-leaf.
The explanation lies in the wider international and historical context. Over the past 30 years human remains have become the focus of various campaigns in North America, Canada and Australasia. Indigenous groups, archaeologists and anthropologists campaigned for the repatriation of human remains to culturally affiliated groups as a way of making reparations for colonisation and the impact of settler society, and as an opportunity for these groups to write their own histories.But that can’t be the reason here, except in a few very small areas?
In the late 1990s a similar debate took place in Britain. Eventually, partly as a result of the Alder Hey organs scandal, the Human Tissue Act 2004 was passed. This included a clause to permit the transfer of human remains from specific museums, which had previously been forbidden.Ah. Of course. Legislation for one area immediately throws up the need for legislation in another…
The controversy in the UK is different in two important respects. First there was weaker external pressure on institutions compared with Australasia, America and Canada. A 2003 survey conducted for the Human Remains Working Group, a Government appointed committee, categorised claims from overseas groups on institutions as "low". Indeed, they only found 33 such requests on English institutions, seven of which had already been agreed to, and others that were repeat claims from the same group.Interesting!
In Britain, high-profile demands that museums deal differently with human remains, which have resulted in law changes and major repatriations, are not primarily due to pressure from overseas groups. Such claims have not, in fact, been that significant here.And yet, clearly, museum directors have the wind up.
So why are some increasingly uncomfortable about displaying remains, continually questioning its ethics, covering up skeletons, removing them altogether, or erecting warning signs?Good question. Why indeed?
Through the intellectual trends of postmodernism, cultural theory and post-colonial theory, the traditional justifications of the museum have been questioned to the point of crisis. The pursuit of knowledge has come to be seen not as universal or objective but as an expression of European prejudice./facepalm
The barbarians are here, and they are us!
The question of how human remains are researched and displayed has become a lightning rod for a wider debate over the purpose of the museum. I have spoken to many campaigners who see the issue of repatriating or repositioning human remains – once considered scientific objects – as a way to signal a change of purpose for the institution.From education and research, to…what?
What could they (and the public) possibly expect from a museum?
One of them explained that campaigning for repatriation and the removal of human remains from display was more important to him than his area of trained expertise. He told me: "I am an archaeologist. My specialism is the Persian period. A big find has just happened and I should go, I am the expert in this area, but I would much rather stay and do this. This is more pressing and important for me now."
This senior curator, and others like him, are taking it upon themselves to remove and hide the exhibits. In doing so they are also dismantling from within the purpose of the museum as an institution.Oh, good grief!
The long march of the Gramscians through the institutions is clearly almost done, isn’t it? Here we have someone for whom the advancement of a political ideology is more important than the career they supposedly studied long and hard for!
That’s quite incredible…
So, if you think that displays of human remains still have something valuable to teach us make sure that next time you go to a museum you ask them where they keep their skeletons – and tell them, where appropriate, to take them out of the closet.Is it not too late for that? I fear it is…