Guest blog: Are human remains in ethically safe hands?

This is a guest blog by Claudia von der Borch, who is the Programme Officer at MOD. in Adelaide. You can find Claudia van der Borch on her website, Musing about Museums.

Testing the condition of Article 4.3 of the ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums regarding the display of human remains against the Lindow Man, The National Museum of Denmark and Body Worlds

The exhibition of human remains has been a staple of museum displays for a long time. For many, it is the combination of history, science and morbid curiosity that attracts to the display of human remains. In Western society, colonization brought an exposure to other cultures whose remains became objects for documenting ‘otherness’. Some of these remains are still in museum collections, however the origin of bodies in museums is more widely spread, with Western museums displaying the ancient or modern remains of their own countries as well. Nonetheless, not all cultures agree with the display of human remains, particularly those whose remains were taken unethically. Nowadays, the display of human remains is a controversial topic, where care is needed to ensure displays are culturally and ethically sensitive.

Although museums have long practiced the collection and display of human remains, these remains stand apart from other objects held in museum collections due to the unique place they hold in society. The holding of human remains in museums, by its very nature, creates many issues, concerns and responsibilities which museums are required to consider. Museums accept the responsibility for the care and management of these remains unless a repatriation claim is completed. As museums have matured, the creation of policies, standards and ethics has become a necessity in the acquisition, public display and management of remains held in their collection. One of the ways in which museums deal with the contentious issue of human remains display is to commit to the ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums.

The Code is vital because it guides and sets the minimum standards for museums and is generally accepted by the international museum community. It is a clear set of principles which bind together the conduct of museums and their staff. Ethics generally outline standards of integrity and competence beyond legal requirements. The Code is not enforceable, rather it is a set of ideals which help museum personnel judge their existing practices and current decisions. Museums, therefore, are expected to adhere to the Code as the base standard to which they should act. The museum profession has a special standing in public trust. Museums embody a unique relationship to human history, knowledge and heritage. As such, these institutions must act according to high standards of responsibility and ideals of service to society, particularly when dealing with the display of human remains.

Under Article 4.3 regarding the ‘Exhibition of Sensitive Materials’, it is outlined that human remains 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 peoples’.

Can the Codes’ article regarding the display of remains in museums be tested to determine whether this minimum standard is ethically up to scratch? I have reviewed the code against three current displays in different locations.

1.‘Human remains must be displayed in a manner consistent with professional standards’

The Lindow Man

The Code requires adherence to professional standards yet does not determine exactly what these professional standards entail. Museums in the UK, as a prime example, have responded both to the high number of remains in their collections and to the public response to them. According to a survey conducted in 2003, 90 percent of cultural institutions in the UK possess 61,000 remains.[i] Their public have responded to a survey run by the English Heritage Fund showing that only 9% are opposed to the display of human remains.[ii] This culture of remains display has resulted in a developed and simple set of professional standards which, in my opinion, ICOM could incorporate more proactively into their materials. Without any further guidance from the Code, professional standards are inclusive of the guidelines set out in the following documents.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has issued the Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums 2005 detailing public display of human remains.[iii] There are three aspects which the DCMS holds for consideration. 1. Remains should only be displayed if the museum determines that doing so makes ‘a material contribution to a particular interpretation’ which could not be made otherwise. Inclusive in this is the notion that sufficient explanatory material is required. 2. The display should be planned, giving consideration as to how the visitor will view the remains or provide opportunity to warn them against viewing remains. 3. The final guideline is related to concerns about the maintenance of display conditions.

The British Museums Policy on Human Remains only mentions the standards regarding careful thought to the reasons for display, and provision of explanatory and contextual information. In addition to these standards, the museum profession must follow the legal standards required by the Human Tissues Act 2004, which concerns the licensing and consent requirements.

The Lindow Man is a highly publicized bog body which was found in a pit near Wilmslow in Cheshire in 1984. As a bog body, with hair, facial expression and skin intact, the Lindow Man challenges the distance of removed humanity generally perceived by viewers of remains such as skeletons. Even without the addition of the facial reconstruction provided by the museum, he is noted for visually bringing the ‘past into the present’.[iv] The public display of the Lindow Man began in 1986 as part of the Archaeology in Britain exhibition at the British Museum.

The Lindow Man measures up well to the professional standards outlined by the DCMS Guideline. In particular, the description of the Lindow Man as the ‘everyman of British prehistory’ points to the context of his particular display. The explanatory material required by the DCMS Guidance accompanying the Lindow Man consists of a photograph of Lindow Moss, information panels detailing his discovery, circumstances of death, scientific investigation and preservation of his body. The Lindow Man is positioned in a corner of the Iron Age Gallery, away from the central path, shielded from people to avoid them coming across him unaware, thus achieving the DCMS guidance on warning.[v] Over time, the upkeep of display conditions has changed. Previously, the light level in his display case resulted in his skin lightening. Currently, the case and its conditions such as humidity and temperature are constantly monitored by museum staff.

This case study exemplifies the multifaceted nature of what professional standards could mean in terms of display of remains. The Code and the Lindow Man heavily rely on other sources and guidelines to piece together what professional standards are required (DCMS, HTA, museum policies). However, it also demonstrates that professional standards can be stripped to four essential features: justification for display, provision of interpretive material, placement, and maintenance of conditions. These professional standards adopted by the UK ensure both the basic care for the remains as well as reasonable steps to consider audience needs for both interpretation and warning.

2.‘And, where known, [display must take] into account the interest and beliefs of members of the community, ethnic or religious groups from whom the [remains] originated’

The National Museum of Denmark

Until the 1960s, the links between human remains in museum collections and the living communities they originated from were ignored. In colonial times, the human remains of Indigenous people were plundered from graves, taken back as trophies to Europe along with other items of cultural significance. This practice extended until recently, with archaeologists and anthropologists removing remains for their display in museums.

The Code now incorporates a demand for the recognition of museums’ obligations to what is now acknowledged as ‘source communities’. This was heavily influenced by the repatriation and restitution claims by Indigenous communities.[vi] This rose to prominence in the 1980s in Australia with Australian museums initiating return of remains, to the 1990s in the United States with the Native Americans Graves Protection Act (NAGPRA).[vii] This greater shift in museum obligations and attitudes has given power to source communities, who have come to be recognized as authorities on their own cultural and material heritage.[viii]

The National Museum of Denmark sparked a public debate in 2012 for its approach to the display (or in this case, the non-display) of human scalps from Native American culture. In a temporary exhibition, titled Powwow: We Dance, We’re Alive, the museum exhibited a collection of Native American clothing and objects. This could have been seen as an opportunity to display the scalps in the museum’s collection, which had been removed from display in 1988. However, the museum chose to act out of concern for the Native communities, consciously deciding against their display. Rather than displaying the scalps, the museum incorporated and encouraged discussion on human remains, with textual panels and a QR code poll. A frosted glass case prompted visitors to consciously decide to look inside for the scalp, only to be met with an empty space with a black circle with the text ‘Scalp?’.[ix]

The museum also holds a number of other human remains which are treated differently to those of Native American origins. For example, the exhibits concerning the national history of Denmark include the remains of the Egtved Girl. The Danish public is therefore accustomed to the exhibition of remains from their country but are not familiar with Native source community interests. The debate over the scalps display raised the different treatment of remains within the museum, with the public accusing the museum of ‘political correctness’ and limiting free speech.

This case study demonstrates that whilst the display of scalps was an integral part of the exhibition narrative and would have made a ‘material contribution’ to the Powwow exhibit, the Museum approached the issue from a different angle, taking into consideration the interests of the Native American culture. By doing so, the museum may also have protected a future relationship with source communities by demonstrating a willingness to adhere to their interests even when it is against a large portion of the Danish public’s acceptance of human remains display.

This case study raises the issue of how the interests of source communities should be gathered. The Curator, Mille Gabriel, in a journal article reviewing the Powwow exhibit, discussed the consultation with the Northern Cheyenne people regarding the clothing items on display.[x] However, there is no publically available indication of consultation over the decision to not display the scalps, or the methods used to discuss their absence. The only indication which shows how the interests of Native Americans were gathered is the consensus that display of Native remains is considered unethical, as enforced by the NAGPRA.[xi] Whilst the Museum arrived to a conclusion which is respectful of Native American interests, I question whether it is appropriate for all institutions to make assumptions on community needs and interests, or if active consultation should be a more integral part of the process as outlined by the Code.

Currently, a common practice in many museums, particularly in North America and Australia, when dealing with objects with ties to source communities is a consultation which results in a collaborative effort. Members of the community take on guest curator or consultant roles. The point of this is to facilitate the dissemination of community-led expertise, to work towards sharing multiple perspectives, and also to bring forward what are sometimes competing meanings attributed to objects from scientists and community members.[xii]

In cases where display is deemed to be inappropriate or against the values of the source community, such as in this case study, it is highly unlikely that there will be collaborative efforts over the design of display and interpretation. Often collaboration or consideration of interests result in no display. The Code is, in its approach to the ethics of display of human remains, inclusive of this prospect.

The Code does not allude to the degree to which community interest should be taken into account. The National Museum of Denmark’s handling of the issue regarding the scalps and the other human remains in its collection shows that this was handled at the Museum’s discretion. Whilst the National Museum of Denmark felt it was important to take the source communities’ concerns into consideration, as the Code requires, some criticized the museum, as a public institution, for dictating what the Danish public was allowed to see. To this, the Director of the Museum countered that as taxpayers, their money was spent employing experts who were capable of making informed choices, essentially advocating the authority museums have over the interpretation of their collections.[xiii]

This portion of Article 4.3 shows that museums must be proactive in ascertaining the interests and beliefs of source communities. By testing it against the National Museum of Denmark, it is apparent that issues arise due to the lack of guidance from ICOM regarding the methods of gathering the interests and beliefs of origin communities, and the extent to which these core values should influence decisions of display. Retaining authority in museums is important, however further guidance on these issues could be useful for museums and source communities. This aspect of the Code requires further research to determine whether there is a balance which can be achieved or if museums require further guidance on approaching this aspect of the Code.

3. ‘[Human remains] must be presented with great tact and respect for the feelings of human dignity held by all peoples’

Body Worlds

The Code requires that presentation is done with tact and respect. This concept is the backbone of most display guidelines, ethics and legislations governing the display of human remains. The DCMS Guidance in the UK suggests that displays should be planned in order to encourage visitors to view remains respectfully. The foundation of the respect standard is that re