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’.