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  • Angela Stienne

Collecting, displaying, returning skulls in museum collections

In February 2019, the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) hosted a one-day conference on the management of human remains from colonial era in university museums. This was a direct response to an article published in Paris Match on 24 May 2018, which condemned the museum’s holding of the skulls of a number of individuals killed during the colonial rule of Belgium in Congo.

The Brussels conference aimed to begin a process of transparent discussion on the problematic retention of human remains from colonial era in academic museums, and for this purpose had invited a number of representants from academic museums, research institutions, and the African diaspora in Brussels. While the intention of the conference was very much desirable, the development of the conference can only be described as a return to colonial era discourses on the retention of looted or violently acquired human remains. The discourses from the organisers and some speakers included comments about ‘symbolic restitution’ being more important than physical repatriation. A professor emeritus from Paris, and a former curator at the Musée de l’Homme, advised the audience to be ‘less emotional’ about human remains and commented about the superiority of 'science', declaring ‘I have no lesson to receive from the humanities’. He added that Sartjee Bartmann – a woman who was enslaved and forced into prostitution and showmanship for survival in Paris, whose body was studied while she was alive by Georges Cuvier and collected and dissected at her death to be put on display – was ‘an actor of her own destiny’.

This conference was a compelling account of how some museums and universities have created an open stage for neo colonial conversations regarding colonial era human remains not only to happen, but to thrive without condemnation.

The entanglement of the collecting of skulls and racial studies survives in the collection of many museums and comes from a long history of European studies into non-European skulls. For example, the Broca gionometer, now displayed in the Science Museum Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries, is a device which was used to measure the angle of the face on a skull, in order to determine and rank the racial origins of individuals.

Broca goniometer for measuring angles of the face, 1862-1900, France.

The collecting of skulls for the purpose of race studies spans a number of collections in Europe and north America and includes collections that might have gone unnoticed by museum visitors, including ancient Egyptian collections. Indeed, as early as the second half of the 18th century, a rhetoric of racial differentiation led individuals to study Egyptian mummies, identifying the mummy as racially oriented evidence of the origin of mankind. In 1792, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach conducted the first openly racially motivated set of dissections of Egyptian mummies at the British Museum in London. These interventions underpinned his research on the classification of humankind. Using comparative anatomy, especially craniology, as his research method, Blumenbach framed the Egyptian mummy within his own developing taxonomic system.

J.F. Blumenbach, De generis humani varietate. Wellcome Collection.

He was not alone in these race studies located in museums. At the turn of the 19th century, Georges Cuvier, curator at the Natural History Museum in Paris, applied his taxonomic approach to the study of Egyptian human skulls in order to confirm both his classification system and his racial theories. Cuvier had his own cabinet which contained Egyptian skulls, amongst 11,000 human remains. James Cowles Prichard commented in his Research into the Physical History of Mankind (1836) that: ‘M. Cuvier declares that he has examined, either at Paris or in other parts of Europe, more than fifty heads of mummies, and that none of them presented the characters either of the Negro or the Hottentot. He concluded that the Egyptians belonged to the same race of men as the Europeans; that their cranium and brain was equally voluminous with ours’.

The affiliation of the ancient Egyptians with Europeans was an attempt to claim their achievements, and to fulfil a colonial agenda that required the dissociation of ancient Egypt from the African people, who were then considered inferior. The skulls collected by Cuvier were on public display at the Museum national d’Histoire naturelle, and some of these human remains were transferred to the Musée de l’Homme, which has a controversial history regarding its human remains retention and display. Today, the Musée de l'Homme holds an extensive collection of human remains, including 63 complete mummified bodies, 33 of these are Egyptian mummies, as well as 52 isolated mummy heads from Egypt and South America, and other body parts. And yet, the links between the long history of the museum’s collecting and study of skulls for race science, and its contemporary museum collection, are nowhere to be seen in the museum display.

J. C. Prichard: skulls from different races; 1826. Wellcome Collection.

Medical collections and academic museums in Europe – such as the Wellcome Collection with its colossal collection of non-European human remains or the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology which has a foundational history of research into eugenics – are the repository of a large number of human remains which were collected to showcase racial differences. These museum collections across Europe are now faced with collections that are repositories of colonial violence, looting, unfair trade and the physical memory of the role museums and academic institutions played in the promotion of scientific racism, a science of measurement that was aimed at promoting a colonial agenda.

The repatriation of human remains to their country of origins has certainly been a hot topic in 2019. While the Université Libre de Bruxelles provides an example of an institution which is not yet ready to engage fully with the scope of its retention of human remains and their necessary repatriation, other institutions have started the process. In January, it was announced that the Pitt Rivers Museum was repatriating human remains, although it is a process that had already started, including the return of Māori remains to New Zealand in 2017, and it is a process that continues, in line with Pitt Rivers Museum’ great effort towards reconciliation, access and repatriation. Other museums including the British Museum and the Wellcome Collection/ Science Museum have also repatriated human remains to New Zealand. Recently, Edinburgh University announced it is repatriating skulls to Sri Lanka. The repatriation processes in museums do not only include skulls and human remains but also culturally-sensitive objects, including the recent repatriations by Manchester Museum. However, these repatriations are not generalized in Europe, and the fact that the question of whether or not to repatriate looted or violently acquired human remains persists indicates that museums are still uneasy with their colonial history. In addition, many museums do not have fully accessible and transparent lists of human remains in their collections, which are barriers towards claims for repatriation. Initiatives like the Science Museum online list of human remains are good initiatives, but still rare in European museums.

An article of 22 November 2019 in The Telegraph states: ‘Edinburgh University’s decision to return a set of skulls to Sri Lanka has been criticised by historians who fear Britain’s museums risk being stripped of objects which are crucial in explaining to future generations this country’s place in the world. Some of the country’s most respected museum curators and antiquarians have expressed their concern over the growing number of artefacts and works of art being returned to countries from which campaigners say they were “stolen”.’ The article is a reminder that the debate over the collecting, displaying and returning of human remains is far from over. The attitude of institutions like the Université Libre de Bruxelles, which never condemned the conversations held publicly in February, are a striking warning that the processes of decolonisation of museums and academic institutions hosting human remains are not just slow, they are at risk of promoting a return to colonial era thinking over the role of the museum in its safeguarding of extra-European human remains and objects. Although the efforts of a number of institutions are welcome, there is an urgency for museums and academic institutions to be transparent about the human remains collections they hold, the way these were acquired, and their current holding in museum collections. The current museum silences need to be reversed to prevent these institutions from becoming stages for neo colonial thinking and practices.


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