Museums, in order to achieve accredited status, must adhere to correct standards and policies. Alongside this it is essential to address the ethics of dealing with certain collections items. Collection items such as human remains.
The conversation is an interesting one to have – should museums display and/or store human remains? Do they even have the right to? What gives them that right? What are the advantages, or the disadvantages? And how should display and interpretation be attempted, what is there to accomplish?
This is why I jumped at the chance to attend ‘Encountering Corpses’, a day of lectures and debates presented by Manchester Metropolitan University’s (MMU) Institute of Humanities and Social Science Research (iHSSR) and held at Manchester Museum (MM).
The event aimed to “specifically address how the materiality of the human corpse is treated in and through display, exhibition, sanctification, memorialisation, burial and disposal”. This meant that although I was there purely from a museology view point, a wide range of issues in contemporary society were also going to be lectured by various speakers, including the grieving process, death being represented in art and the habits of serial killers.
The day was composed of three panels with an overall eleven speakers and a tour of Manchester Museums Egyptology / Ancient Worlds gallery’s with Manchester Museum’s curator of Archaeology, Dr Bryan Stich, and curator of Egyptology, Dr Campbell Price.
Dr Craig Young, Reader in Human Geography at MMU began the day with an image of a skull. The skull was one of a murdered Colonial Chief that is now held at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, in Brussels. The photograph transformed the skull into a mere object of science, not illustrating or conveying what it truly is. This brings up the various issues of holding human remains, the ethics, the policies and the political implications before you even reach the actual reality of the object, the history of the Colonial people and a reflection of humanities ultimate other.
There has, undeniably, been an increased interest in human remains in when once death was an untouched topic not discussed, now presentation, display and even disposal issues are emerging into new light. Popular culture has resulted in a social recognition of people’s attitudes towards dead bodies. Television shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation in conjunction with what some people might deem morbid reality, dark tourism, death and remains are becoming extremely more visible.
Donations to science, global trade in body parts, burials… there is numerous ways in which we encounter corpses in modern day, but has this desensitised us to some extent? How would this then shape how we view the body and how we see it as an artefact, how would we react? How do people perceive the dead body if it is lay out as a whole or just as a skull, for example? Would that reaction differ if the body was lay for a burial, or for science?
The certainty is, bodies will decay and so there is limited time to consider these issues. Human remains are conceptualized by society in a fog of whats, whys and hows.
Is it even ethical to treat these remains are artefacts or should there be that degree of respect that recognises their ancestry aside from the academic? Should we be addressing them as materials or as individuals, in a relatable manner that we recognise, in the same language we would refer to our deceased family members?
The mobility of dead bodies has increased; this has thus brought them more to our attention. “The final journey”, the journey to the grave, is being seen more often in much more exaggerated ways. When Diana, Princess of Wales died in 1997, it is estimated over 1 million people lined the streets to witness her final journey. Seeing her body was an emotional experience despite most of these people never once meeting her.
Other examples highlighting mobility of corpses includes the case of the Serbian Royal family who, in May 2013, were exhumed from their graves and returned to their home to be reburied after dying far from home (in various countries) many years earlier.
Or the case of Petru Groza. Groza (1884 – 1958) was the Prime Minister of Romania and a highly respected man. When he died and was so buried in 1958 after a lavish funeral it became obvious that there was no particularly special place for people of high power and admiration to be buried. In 1965 such a place had been constructed and so Groza was exhumed and reburied in a grand and decorative mausoleum during another large and lavish funeral. Despite all this effort, this was not Groza’s wish. He has expressed in life that he very much wanted to be buried in his home town, Băcia, close to Transylvania. Knowing this, one night his body was stolen by family and friends from his home town and returned via bus, and reburied once more for the third time and in an unmarked grave – the ending he had hoped for, be that after a much longer journey than he probably expected.
Famous graves have fuelled what is now known as dark tourism. Many thousands of people will visit the final resting places for their heroes and idols but despite a natural aversion to death and dead bodies, would people still visit a grave if there was no body in the ground? Probably not.
Unfortunately this is a notion that is quite apparent and most likely one of the driving forces in the current battle of where exactly Richard III should be buried as he will attract tourism like no other medieval king does.
Next Dr Bryan Stich told of how Manchester Museum has exhibited Lindow Man in the past and how they have approached interpretation differently on various occasions. Lindow Man is currently at the British Museum and their online description of him is as follows:
“The body of this man was discovered in August 1984 when workmen were cutting peat at Lindow Moss bog in North West England.
It was carefully transported to the British Museum and thoroughly examined by a team of scientists. Their research has allowed us to learn more about this person – his health, his appearance and how he might have died – than any other prehistoric person found in Britain.
The conditions in the peat bog meant that the man’s skin, hair and many of his internal organs are well preserved. Radiocarbon dating shows that he died between 2 BC and AD 119. He was about 25 years of age, around 168 cm tall and weighed 60-65 kg. He had probably done very little hard, manual work, because his finger nails were well manicured. His beard and moustache had been cut by a pair of shears. There is no evidence that he was unwell when he died, but he was suffering from parasitic worms. His last meal probably included unleavened bread made from wheat and barley, cooked over a fire on which heather had been burnt.
The man met a horrific death. He was struck on the top of his head twice with a heavy object, perhaps a narrow bladed axe. He also received a vicious blow in the back – perhaps from someone’s knee – which broke one of his ribs. He had a thin cord tied around his neck which may have been used to strangle him and break his neck. By now he was dead, but then his throat was cut. Finally, he was placed face down in a pool in the bog. This elaborate sequence of events suggests that his death may have been ritual killing. Some people have argued that he was the victim of a human sacrifice possibly carried out by Druids.
Lindow Man’s official name is Lindow II, since other human remains have also been found in Lindow Moss bog: a human skull, known as Lindow I, a fragmented headless body (Lindow III) and the upper thigh of an adult male (Lindow IV) which as it was found close to Lindow Man may be the remains of his missing leg.”
In 1987 Lindow Man was displayed at Manchester Museum, arguably what should be his home location, on loan from the British Museum. For this exhibition a ritual sacrifice reproduction was adopted in order to tell his story. However, as visitors to museums have become much more aware of ethical issues in this environment in regards to human remains due to contemporary concerns of human tissue storage with no official permission, it has become much more problematic over the years to offer an accepted interpretation. And so, when Lindow Man was to be redisplayed at Manchester Museum in 2008 the staff took a different approach. They carried out a public consultation and acted upon their findings. The wide range of people consulted from the community voiced that they wanted him to be treated and shown with respect and for the exhibition to reflect that there are different ways to approach interpretation.
Despite the communication and feedback from the public, and despite the exhibition receiving two awards, the museum was met with criticism about the ethics of displaying human remains. Some websites accused the museums approach being one of ‘political correctness gone mad’ whilst visitors suggested the content was inappropriate; “Emotional responses are pointless unless based on correct facts.”
Overall though, the exhibition had 160, 000 visitors, 12500 of whom completed comment cards resulting in 67% agreeing that museums have the right to, and should, display human remains.
Next up, Dr Campbell Price discussed “Egyptian Mummies in the Museum: Authenticity, Curiosity and Revulsion”. He initially makes the obvious observation that mummies are the most popular exhibits in museums (though one might be inclined to suggest dinosaurs may be more so) and they do continue to be the go to item when considering the public perception of Egyptology. Despite museums being expected to provide definite answers and facts people still question them.
With questions such as “are the mummies real?” and “why were the Egyptians obsessed with death?”
Outside of academia people have very little direct experience with mummies. The only contact they will have had will be in the same context as vampires and werewolves, in horror stories and movies – fictional monsters. So it is understandable that the illusion is upheld. Ironically, I mentioned dinosaurs being more popular and at Manchester Museum this might be so, even though their mummies are authentic yet their T-Rex, Stan is a cast.
Margaret Murray (1863 – 1963) was an Egyptologist and Anthropologist, primarily known for her work in Egyptology. She was one of the first people to put together a multidiscipline team which went on to work on the unwrapping of two mummies – brothers. One was unwrapped in private but the other, in 1908, was unwrapped in front of 500 people at Manchester Museum. Murray was the first woman to do this; she wanted to show that Egyptology wasn’t just about ‘hocus pocus’, for this practice was able to expose the mummy’s diet, health issues and more. At the time Murray even gave bits of the wrappings from the mummy to people from the crowd. Manchester Museum still gets contacted about these pieces. Following on from this another Manchester Egyptologist unwrapped another mummy and this was televised.
From this it is easy to make the assumption that Egyptians were ‘obsessed’ with death as mummies, canopic jars etc. are the core of most museum collections but there is a very simple explanation for this. The Ancient Egyptians buried their dead in tombs along with their belongings – this is what has essentially preserved them. Settlements are much more susceptible to damage, the tombs offered protection to enable their prolonged survival.
Price went on to introduce us to Manchester Museums first mummy, acquired in 1825, The Lady Asru, c.650 BC. Asru has been unwrapped as in the 70’s unwrapping a mummy (often after a dinner party) became a popular form of entertainment. Now, however, she sits semi covered. Her head and feet are exposed but it is said, not just of Asru but of all mummies, that it is the hands that allow you to make that connection that humanises the remains.
We then went down to the public Ancient Worlds gallery where Asru lays today. Next to the case in which she is displayed sits a facial reconstruction but this might only assist in the confusion of who she is, real or not. Asru’s father was named Pai-Kush, Kush meaning he was a Kushite man and likely high up in the ranks, maybe even serving as a Kushite king. This information, the family tree, may be more useful in identifying Asru’s provenance and putting her life into more context.
The debate of human remains in museums is on-going and mummies are prevalent pieces of the puzzle and so perhaps it is important that the Ancient Egyptians have their say? There was a certain degree of belief in Ancient Egypt that once you died you became a statue, an object. Yet the question we are considering is do we treat them as human beings or as museum objects?
After viewing Asru it was clear that seeing her as a human being was not as easy as you might think. One delegate likened her to an alien – she has an alien name, not one you would hear today, she looks different and sits in what almost looks like a space ship (her coffin); it was very clear that she is not one of us. Would this reaction have been any different though if her name had been Emily?
Find out more about Asru on Dr Campbell Price’s blog HERE.
The following speakers spoke of the representation of human remains in other aspects of life, not museums. The next panel included Emma Fox, Dr Julie Rugg, Dr Faye Sayer and Sam McCormick.
Fox currently conducts tours of Southern Cemetery in Manchester where many famous names have been buried. Almost from a dark tourism angle she spoke of her experiences conducting the tours and the overall process of putting forward her idea to start the tours and the general running of the cemetery. Rugg looked at the actual history of burials and how they have changed as people’s attitudes have changed towards dead bodies.
A Victorian regulation issued by Sir Edwin Chadwick (1800 -1890) suggested that if you constructed a grave correctly, at the right depth, in the correct environment and with good drainage you could induce faster decomposition and the grave could be reused in an estimated 25 years. Having one coffin in a grave is essential to this as he believed the toxins released from the bodies would mix something terrible. This did not go down well with families as they were often buried in an extremely deep grave stacked on top of each other, this was seen as protective and represented that they were loved. Chadwick’s theory suggests that the bodies were seen as dirty and polluting items.
The famous dead are treated differently though. Because of their status they are treated almost as if they are public property often treated in ways you wouldn’t want family members treated. For example, Lenin – his body was preserved in the most violent of ways.
Dr Faye Sayer from MMU spoke of ‘Bones without Barriers’ and the social impact of excavating human remains in the public domain. It’s a controversial topic as the viewing of human remains is considered macabre, and morally and ethically distasteful. Despite this Sayer spoke of the project held at the Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Oakington, Cambridgeshire and of how she gained a ministry of justice licence to excavate human remains without barriers and screens, exposing the process and providing a unique opportunity to explore public engagement and their relationships with the dead. When the project began people stood behind a fence to view what was happening even though it was open for them to enter. By the second week they were venturing towards the trench and asking questions, ownership had begun and they were starting to treat the bodies as part of their community. Towards the latter part of the project people began to offer up their own interpretations of the remains, to understand them as if it had become their duty to do so.
Finally PhD student Sam McCormick spoke of her research on ‘Ash Creations’. 75% of people who die are cremated and 60% of people collect the ashes from funeral homes to dispose of them personally, in their own individual ways. Disposal methods are evolving with new ones developing all the time; now you can send your ashes literally in to space! Traditional scattering might soon be in the minority. In the last decade the material dead have shifted and ‘encountering corpses’ doesn’t have to mean an actual corpse. Ashes Creations means art, glassware, jewellery, ceramics, vinyl records, oil paintings and tattoos that incorporate cremation ashes within them. This is not a replacement for complete disposal as only tiny amounts are used but it allows for after-death relationships to continue. Whereas a grave is retrospective of someone who was this is an on-going remembrance, an outlet that allows the person to be there, that relationship that was established with a loved one is allowed to continue.
All the speakers encapsulated the very fact that the dead still have a role in the living world. Be that educational or spiritual, they have a job to do and a definite place within museums.
Following a break Lee Mellor spoke of the attitudes of prolific serial killers towards their victims’ bodies and Sue Fox and Paul Koudounaris of their current art projects concerning taboo images of autopsies and decorated Early Christian martyrs skeletons. Both of which feature in the accompanying photography exhibition currently at Sacred Trinity Church, Salford until Thursday 10th April 2014.
Find out more on the Encountering Corpses Art Exhibition HERE.
And read tweets on the event with the hashtag #EncounteringCorpses