Displaying the dead

The dead, they say, are always with us.

And sometimes, they are on display in museums. And as Jonathan Jarrett recently reminded me via a recent blogpost, there are a whole range of issues around the display of human remains.

Now, there are a number of good reasons why human remains should be kept and displayed in medical collections – essentially to illustrate various pathologies. Having once had pretensions to study psychophysiology I’ve seen my fair share of disarticulated skeletons and bits of dead people in bottles.

I assume that in most of these cases the people whose bits now float in jars gave their consent. And in the case of some of the older samples I recognise they may not have done, perhaps because they had no one to speak for them.

However, I have no problem with these collections. They clearly have a role in the advancement of human knowledge and alleviation of suffering. In other words, they have a purpose that we can all agree is useful, even if the items sometimes make us squirm.

And that’s fine in a medical context.

Historical and archaeological museums are something else.

I remember going to look at the Jewry Wall in Leicester one grey November day in the mid eighties.

I then continued on to the adjacent museum to look at their mosaics.

At the time, and it was nearly forty years ago, they had a dead Anglo Saxon in foyer – they had recreated the excavation of a grave and had the skeleton as found laid out with their grave goods. As I remember it the skeleton was an example from the transition from pagan to Christian practice, it had been buried with both a crucifix and grave goods.

I remember thinking that the display was a little tasteless. The dead person had been buried with some ceremony, by people who cared enough about the dead person to ensure a decent burial. They did not expect the bones to be displayed and gawked at.

Obviously, construction work means that we will always uncover burials, and it is perfectly understandable that we would wish to document the dead to enhance our understanding – questions such as where did they come from, did they exhibit any abnormal pathologies, how old were they when they died.

But display them?

I think we can say with confidence that the people who buried the dead human would expect the remains to be treated with something approaching the same degree of respect that they showed when they buried them, and that this most probably does not include having the remains put on display.

And basically this is what it come down to. Are we showing the degree of respect that the people who buried the dead person would expect of us?

And of course, it’s not just the actual dead.

Historical medical records equally need to be treated with something approaching the degree of privacy that they would have when they were ‘live’ records.

To explain:

At Dow’s Pharmacy we have a number of prescription books in which the pharmacist of the day wrote down what he or she had dispensed to whom, on such and such a date and how much they had been charged.

Much of the information is probably innocuous – after all who, especially in the days before antibiotics – did not have a cough that did not go away, or a cut that did not heal cleanly.

But of course, sometimes that cough was the first sign of consumption, and sometimes that cut never did heal and the person died horribly of sepsis.

And, while I don’t know this, there may be cases of people who were being treated for syphilis and the like, and records of medicine made up to treat an ailing child who subsequently died.

At the time, people would have expected that the books would have been kept private.

So today, we have one on display. We normally keep it closed, but open it at a ‘safe’ page when explaining the life of the pharmacy. We don’t let the pages of the book be photographed.

I think that’s an acceptable compromise. Things that people would have wanted to keep secret are kept secret. It is unlikely that anyone would be too upset if we accidentally revealed that someone’s great aunt Maisie had a very bad cold in the winter of 1931.

Just as if it was thought appropriate to recreate a burial to display items in context, as they did in Leicester all these years ago, it would be acceptable to use a modern plastic anatomy skeleton in place of the human remains.

It doesn’t change the validity of the display, but ensures that the remains themselves are treated with the respect that the original burial group would have expected.

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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1 Response to Displaying the dead

  1. Pingback: 3D scanning and the dead … | stuff 'n other stuff

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