Education Vs. Shock Value: Displaying Human Remains

by Devon Mancini, Master’s Candidate in Museum Professions at Seton Hall University

“Does the educational benefit of human remains outweigh the rights of the dead?”[1] Julia R. Deathridge posed this question in a 2017 blog post for University College London.

Deathridge asks this question in reference to the ethics of presenting human remains in museums, a practice that has existed for generations. While it is possible for remains to be the result of people donating their bodies to a museum for a specific purpose, (e.g. to show a rare illness or physical abnormality), not all museums are presenting the remains of people who gave this explicit consent during their lifetime. In some cases, human remains found in museum collections and exhibitions are the result of theft, exhumation, or looting of graves; commonly the graves of indigenous people or people from former colonial territories (for more information, check out this article). Paul Tapsell in his essay Out of Sight, Out of Mind, details a case of this from the 19th and 20th centuries in which indigenous remains acquired by the Auckland Museum in New Zealand were traded to colonial museums in hopes of obtaining rare and expensive artifacts to increase their own prestige.[2] Today, when discussions of repatriation and decolonization of museum collections have become more prevalent, visitors and museum professionals are beginning to question the acquisition of human remains and whether or not they are being displayed in a respectful manner. In addition to Deathridge’s original question, a commenter on the University College London blog post opens another debate about the ethics behind displaying human remains, asking: do the dead have rights?

I recently visited the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and after viewing their exhibitions of skeletons, dried corpses, exhumed bodies, and medical anomalies, these two questions began to weigh on my mind. I explored the exhibitions and wondered, is the Mütter showing human remains for educational purposes, or for simple shock value? The Mütter Museum was founded when Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter donated to the Philadelphia College of Physicians his collection of medical anomalies that he used for teaching purposes. Mütter asked the institution to present his collection in exhibitions and protect them in a fire-proof museum building. Since its founding in 1863, the museum has expanded on this original collection, now exhibiting over 25,000 artifacts, including molds, casts, and real human remains.

Two exhibitions raised questions for me during my visit to the Mütter Museum. The first was a glass case holding the exhumed body of an unidentified woman who experts believe died from yellow fever in Philadelphia in the 1790s. Since her identity is unknown, professionals and visitors have labeled her as “Soap Lady,” due to the rare natural mummification process that conserved her body.

In the United States, when a deceased woman is discovered and cannot be identified, she is given the identity of “Jane Doe,” to universally indicate that she could not be identified despite efforts taken by law enforcement and pathologists, and to act as a temporary identity until her actual identity can be determined. The Jane Doe denomination acknowledges that these women still have identities to be found, and it acts as a way of giving respect because it does not strip or replace their original identity. The naming of this Jane Doe as “Soap Lady” has overtaken her original identity, and after observing visitors who viewed her remains, I found it common for people to refer to her in disrespectful and dehumanizing ways through joking discussions on the state of her body. She is now defined by her mummification, and not by who she may have been during her life. The Mütter, and some visitors I observed, often refer to her not as a person, but rather as “specimen” or “the remains,” essentially dehumanizing and classifying her instead as an object. Furthering this objectification, the museum gift shops sells novelty Soap Lady soaps that are molded to copy the appearance of her body.

The second display in the Mütter Museum that caught my attention was the presentation of the man the museum has named “The Mütter American Giant.” Another unidentified person (who might otherwise be labeled “John Doe”), this man is the tallest human currently displayed in a North American museum. He is believed to be from Kentucky, and the acquisition of his body by the museum is questionable. As the story goes, Professor Joseph Leidy, a man associated with the Mütter Museum, heard of this man from Professor A.E. Foote, who was in possession of his body. Foote agreed to sell the remains under the agreement that Leidy would not seek to identify the deceased man. Garth Haslam, author of “1877: Who is the Mütter American Giant?” writes that this type of acquisition of human remains was common during the late 19th century, and it usually meant that when the family was asked for the remains of their loved one, the answer was no.[3] Similar to the earlier Jane Doe, the Mütter takes ownership of human remains and removes the individuals’ original identities, causing them to assume identities describing the physical appearance of their remains, again reducing them to objects.

The mission statement of the Mütter Museum is to “help the public understand the mysteries and beauty of the human body and to appreciate the history of diagnosis and treatment of disease.” [4] The museum operates under the catch phrase of presenting “disturbingly informative” information. After completing my visit, I felt that the museum uses human remains to shock their visitors rather than to promote education or understanding of the human body. In multiple cases where an opportunity for education was presented, the Mütter did not live up to their mission. For example, in one display case, the museum was displaying a human breast that had a cancerous tumor. As an institution operating under a mission statement that promotes education of the public, this tumor could have been used to share information regarding breast health. They may have included statistics on breast cancer, information on conducting self-breast exams to check for lumps, or encouraging women to undergo mammograms yearly. Rather than the museum educating visitors on breast cancer, its treatment, or its preventions, the only description provided is a small text label stating what the piece is, which offers little to no educational value.

My visit to the Mütter Museum made me more aware of multiple issues regarding the display of human remains in museums. At various points of my research into this issue, I came across many cases where museums have decided to repatriate human remains for proper burial, especially in cases in which the remains were of indigenous or colonized people. For example, in an April 2019 article from The Guardian, journalist David Shariatmadari mentions cases in Europe in which museums returned looted, stolen, or exhumed indigenous or other remains to their home countries. He includes a quote from Ned David, a Thursday Island native from Australia, who travelled to the United Kingdom to retrieve remains of his ancestors that had previously been on display at the Natural History Museum in London. David says, “‘As one elder asked: ‘How would you feel knowing that one of your family members is in some strange place and, more importantly, hasn’t been afforded the right burial?’”[5]  It was during this ceremony that members of the museum staff began to realize the ramifications of having human remains in museum collections. Shariatmadari brings up other examples of looted and stolen remains; remains of people who could not give consent to their showing in museums, and the effects these actions had on communities. After completing this research, I continued to think back to the two original questions that plagued my experience at the Mütter Museum. I also came up with more questions regarding the topic. When people cannot give consent, is it then ethical to interrupt their burial and display their remains? In what ways is it ethical to show remains? How can we begin to create a guide for such topics?

 

 

[1] Deathridge, Julia. “Should Human Remains Be Displayed in Museums? | UCL Researchers in Museums”. Blogs.Ucl.Ac.Uk, Last modified 2017. https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/researchers-in-museums/2017/03/28/should-human-remains-be-displayed-in-museums/.

[2] Paul Tipsell, “Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Human Remains At The Auckland Museum – Te Papa Whakahiku”, in Looking Reality In The Eye: Museums And Social Responsibility Alberta, Canada: University of Calgary Press, 2005, 153-173.

[3] “1877: Who is the Mütter Museum Giant?” Anomalies: The Strange & Unexplained, Last modified 2019. http://anomalyinfo.com/Stories/1877-who-mutter-museum-giant.

[4] “Visit”, Muttermuseum.Org, accessed 9 January 2020, http://muttermuseum.org/visit/.

[5] David Shariatmadari, “‘They’re Not Property’: The People Who Want Their Ancestors Back from British Museums”, The Guardian, Last modified 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2019/apr/23/theyre-not-property-the-people-who-want-their-ancestors-back-from-british-museums.

Share

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.