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Rethinking Purpose, Protocol, and Popularity in Displaying the Dead in Museums

Abstract

Since the 1990s, debate about the display of human remains and objects made from human materials has seen a significant increase in the published literature that includes regulatory codes, ethical guidelines, declarations of community protest, and professional statements of support, both for and against displaying the dead. This chapter presents an overview of some of these debates in the wider framework of decolonising display and the purpose for, and popularity of, showing human remains in museums. A review of the ethical guidelines available to museums, professionals, and descendant communities is presented, followed by a discussion of best practice for displaying the dead for public view.

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Fig. 11.1

Notes

  1. 1.

    The term human remains is used to mean the bodies, and parts of bodies, of once living people from the species Homo sapiens (defined as individuals who fall within the range of anatomical forms known today and in the recent past). This includes osteological material (whole or part skeletons, individual bones or fragments of bone and teeth), soft tissue including organs and skin, embryos, and slide preparations of human tissue (DCMS 2005).

  2. 2.

    The Mütter Museum is currently relabelling these skulls to be more modern in context, aligning with visitor enquiries and ethics of the collection (on their website).

  3. 3.

    During her employment at the NMNH, the author spoke at length to museum educators and archivists about the display of Professor Krantz and his dog.

  4. 4.

    The annual conference theme for the Museum Ethnographers Group (MEG) in April 2018 was ‘Decolonising the Museum in Practice’. This event was held at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford (UK) .

  5. 5.

    The author discussed this at length with the Division Head of Anthropology, Dr. Laurie Burgess, at the National Museum of Natural History , Smithsonian Institution (Washington D.C., USA) .

  6. 6.

    The focus group included theologians, archaeologists, educators, museum professionals, community leaders, and the general public.

  7. 7.

    The training session was presented by the author in relation to the Hide and Seek: Looking for Children in the Past exhibition, as well as the permanent Cambridge gallery display of a Roman skeleton in a sarcophagus.

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Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank Erica Jones, David Hunt, Chris Dudar, Eric Hollinger, Bill Billeck, Laurie Burgess, Erin Guthrie, Kristin Macak, Janine Hinton, and Meredith Luze of the National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C., Jelena Bekvalac and Rebecca Redfern from the Museum of London , Sarah-Jane Harknett and Jody Joy at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge , Rose Tyson previously at the San Diego Museum of Man , Guido Lombardi, Marta Mirazón-Lahr, Catherine Kneale, the University of Maryland College Park Anth221 summer forensic students, and especially Dave Lloyd. Thank you to Kirsty Squires, David Errickson, and Nicholas Márquez-Grant for including me in this volume, giving me feedback on the content, and patiently allowing me to complete this research.

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Biers, T. (2019). Rethinking Purpose, Protocol, and Popularity in Displaying the Dead in Museums. In: Squires, K., Errickson, D., Márquez-Grant, N. (eds) Ethical Approaches to Human Remains. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-32926-6_11

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