The Bridge is a new Mummy Stories project introducing individuals around the world whose professional or personal life intersects with the question of the ethicsof human remains in museums. We've asked them to share one word, one initiative,one approach and one sentence with us. Let's discover what they are sharing and let's bridge the gap in the conversation!
Over the past few years, I’ve worn many different hats in heritage, museums, and archaeology, with research ranging from digital participation in museum crowdsourcing projects to Later Prehistoric rituals and funerary rites of humans and animals. However, all of my work has shared themes of inclusivity, diversity, and ethical considerations – particularly thinking through the impact and legacy of colonialism on how archaeologists and museum workers interpret, interact with, and display the past – including human and animal remains. Much of this line of inquiry has been expanded upon through blog posts at www.animalarchaeology.com.
People. It may sound obvious, but it unfortunately clear that some individuals and institutions are unable (or even unwilling) to see the human remains that they work with and display as people; instead, they are dehumanised and objectified into research subjects to extract knowledge and understanding from. Part of this work requires to reiterate the humanity of the dead, as well as the enduring humanity of the descendent communities who are further marginalised and harmed through unethical approaches to human remains.
Finding Ceremony is an initiative born from the vital work being done by Dr Lyra Monteiro and Abdul-Aliy Muhammad regarding the unethical handling and holding of human remains (specifically the remains of Black individuals killed during the MOVE bombing in 1985 and those held in the Morton Cranial Collection) by Penn Museum. The initiative’s goal is to create and maintain descendant community-controlled processes for the return of human remains from institution collections, currently focused on the Black Philadelphian descendent community; however, I believe there is much we can learn from the work of Finding Ceremony with regards to a descendent-centred approach to repatriation of human remains. www.findingceremony.com
Saviourism. We must get rid of this patronising attitude that colonial institutions and individuals working within them know better than descendent communities with regards to how human remains should be treated and handled, as well as the harmful notion that “knowledge” should be held as the highest priority instead of respect or care for the dead. Many would like to think that they are “saving” these deceased individuals from being forgotten – but is it worth denying them the rest they may have long been denied in life?
I hope that one day museums can finally recognise that what they may feel is ethical stewardship and care is actually no different from unethical hoarding and exploitation, and that they alone cannot be the arbiters of ethics and justice – that there are many communities out there whom they must be held accountable to and (hopefully) make amends through repatriation.
Dr Alex Fitzpatrick FSA Scot is a zooarchaeologist and researcher currently based at the Science Museum where she works as Research Fellow in Digital Participation. In addition, she is also Research Officer for the Enabled Archaeology Foundation, a charity dedicated to making archaeology and the wider heritage sector more inclusive and accessible for everyone.