IME Blog

Museum Ethics Q & A: Treatment of Human Remains

Q: How do museums, especially anthropology and natural history museums, ensure that they are being respectful in exhibits that include human bodies? What guidelines are  followed and what factors influence treatment of human  remains?

Martha Morris- Associate Professor and Assistant Director; Museum Studies Department, George Washington University

In regard to the display of human remains, the overriding issue is one of respect.  Remains can be excellent teaching artifacts providing in-depth understanding of biological and cultural history and diversity. Not only are scientific lessons effectively illustrated through these artifacts, but museum visitors and researchers can learn much about cultural dimensions of various communities. As museums collect, preserve and display human remains they must take into consideration legal mandates, ethical tenets, professional standards and social values.

Much has been written about the best practices and legal requirements of dealing with remains of Native Americans. Yet, there are other examples of human remains in museum collections or on loan to museums. For many decades the Smithsonian’s immensely popular medical exhibitions (e.g. fetuses and other body parts in alcohol) were on exhibition on the Mall. In the late 60’s these collections were transferred to the US Army’s National Museum of Health and Medicine, where they continue to draw curious crowds. Other museums of science, natural history or medicine have similar exhibitions.  In the past 25-30 years many of these exhibitions have been dismantled or redesigned to lessen the sensationalism of the traditional “cabinet of curiosities.”  These decisions are made out of respect for those who may be offended or as new research leads to revisions in interpretation. At the same time the public is changing as well.  Witness the debate about evolution vs. creationism.

Museums are succeeding in treating human remains with respect.  An example from the Museum of National History at the Smithsonian:  the Boy in the Coffin, remains that were excavated in a construction project in Washington DC and turned over the museum.  A team of conservators, scientists, collections managers and interns from GWU, examined and researched the boy who died in the mid19th century.  Much care was taken to analyze the clues that would lead to identification .Not only were the remains identified, but through the use of sophisticated DNA technology, current living descendants were found.  The story was featured on the History Channel last year.

AAM ethics statements and standards and best practices call for proper management of collections and loans with strong emphasis on legal mandates and transparency.  Careful documentation of provenance is a baseline policy.  Adherence to Nagpra and other culturally sensitive laws and guidelines is expected. ICOM’s code specifically addresses sensitive materials:

4.3 Exhibition of Sensitive MaterialsHuman remains and materials of sacred significance must be displayed in a manner consistent with professional standards and, where known, taking into account the interests and beliefs of members of the community, ethnic or religious groups from whom the objects originated. They must be presented with great tact and respect for the feelings of human dignity held by all peoplesabout human remains.

Today the ethical dilemma is highlighted in the popular series of “Bodies” exhibitions touring the US and the world. “Bodies-An Exhibition” is getting rave reviews and attracting new audiences to the host museums. The underlying message is one of confronting and overcoming threats to good health such as smoking and eating fast food. As a blockbuster genre this exhibition has many competitors: Body Works, Body Exploration, Bodies Revisited, etc.  Despite this popularity a staff member of the Carnegie museum of science resigned over the booking of this exhibition at her museum in 2007.

The controversy surrounds the human rights issue: were the subjects Chinese prisoners who were tortured?  Is there any evidence that they willingly donated their bodies to be used in such a manner?    The exhibition is organized by a for-profit company, Premier Exhibitions. They employ a chief medical director who has stated that these individuals died of natural causes and were unclaimed and available for medical research. In May 2008 the New York State attorney general forced Premier to get documentation on the means of death and/or consent to use remains.  Without this the company cannot display the exhibition in the state. In February 2009 government officials in Warsaw, Poland began an official probe of the Bodies show.  At issue was the concern for respect for human beings; Poland being homeland of many Jews who lost their lives in the Nazi death camps during the Holocaust. The issue of provenance, legal use, political policy and respect for human rights and religious practices are all at play here. As a blockbuster produced by a for profit business there are also concerns about museums collaborating on commercial ventures. These are all part of the ethical dilemma.


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