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  • Gudrun D. Whitehead

(Un)ethical Mummies, Shrunken Heads and other Human Remains

In 1995, I moved with my family to Oxford for the summer. I was at that in-between-age where I was too young to head into town by myself and too old to be satisfied with the limited independence this rule allowed me. There were really only two places where my sister and I were able to go which was within the allowed walking distance from our rental flat: the laundromat and the Pitt Rivers museum.

The novelty of the laundromat, unsurprisingly, wore off quickly, leaving us with almost daily trips to the museum instead. The magic of that place never wore off for me. Wandering between glass cases, exploring every nook and cranny and drawer at the exhibition, I was immediately and continuously fascinated by the shrunken heads. I had seen mummies and skeletons and body parts in museums before, but the shrunken heads looked simultaneously enormously human yet surreal. That glass case was a world completely removed from any of my experiences and general understanding of the world. Those had once been people, with emotions, relationships, experiences, thoughts and aspirations. How on earth had they ended up in a glass case in Oxford?! Who had they been as people? What was their daily life like? How did they keep them so well preserved for all this time? Did they have relatives today who saw their ancestors’ shrunken heads behind glass? How would my face look shrunken?

There were a lot of questions that I did not ask out loud, just stood there and wondered. Fast forwards to the present and I am still fascinated by human remains in museums, except for now I am framing those questions in museological and ethical terms. That is; how did the museum acquire the human remains? Are they documented as an inanimate object, no different from a pot or a rug or does the museum allow for the fact that this type of object used to be a human? Are they displayed in a respectful, educational manner in museums or do they reinforce social stereotyping? How far have we come in repatriation around the world? What information does the public get about the origin, the life and history of the human remains in question? In an age where displaying human remains, such as mummies, is quickly falling out of public favour, is it morally preferable to pack them up in boxes and forget about them? Are they stored in a respectful manner, where the traditions and culture from which the human remains originate from are being respected, as well as in a way that best preserves them?

I recently gave a lecture in one of my college’s (Joe Wallace Walser III) archaeology class, discussing ethical considerations in relation to human remains in museums around the world. You see, I still have a lot of questions, but I‘m no longer keeping them in my head. Instead, my college and I expect to start a new research project, plunging, head first, into the deep dark pool of ethical treatments of human remains on display and in storage in Iceland. Perhaps in a year or two I’ll be able to write a new story for this site, this time with answers rather than just questions.


Dr Gudrun D. Whitehead is Assistant Professor of Museum Studies at University of Iceland. Dr Whitehead was awarded a PhD in Museum Studies from the University of Leicester in 2014. She has taught a variety of courses in museum studies at the University of Iceland, including: Trash Cultures, Museum Education, and Professional Occupations in Museums. Dr Whitehead is the editor on behalf of Iceland of Nordisk Museologi, the Nordic museum journal. She was on the editorial board for and contributor to Safnablaðið Kvistur (2014-2016), the Icelandic museums magazine. In 2015, she co-edited a special issue of Ólafía, the Icelandic archaeological society’s official journal, titled: ‘Tími, rými og sýnileiki’). She is the lead editor of a forthcoming special edition of Museum and Society, “A Child’s Eye View of Museums: Remembering Elee Kirk”, which will be published in November 2017.

Forthcoming publications include ‘We Come from the Land of the Ice and Snow: Icelandic heritage and its usage in present day society’, a book chapter included in the Heritage Reader in the Leicester Museum Studies Series, to be published by Routledge in 2017. Along with Dr Julia Petrov, she is co-editing a volume, Fashioning Horror: Dressing to Kill on Screen and in Literature, which will be published with Bloomsbury in early 2018.


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