Displaying the remains of soldiers in museums

The Mütter Museum at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia displayed until recently the skull of an ANZAC soldier who died in 1917. The remains were brought to the museum by a Philadelphia surgeon who treated the soldier at a battlefield hospital in France. The surgeon, named WT Shoemaker, removed the head from the soldier who died and donated the head to the museum in 1917. The removal of the diseased without permission for medial research crosses all ethical lines and should have never happened in the first place.

In addition, the fact that these unknown remains were on display at the museum is controversial due to the death of the individual being within living memory, and descendants of this man could still be alive. Australian military researchers discovered the identity of the skull thanks to the unique devastating battle damage to his face and bullet fragments visibly imbedded into the skull. The skull was that of 27-year-old private Thomas Hurdis of Sydney. Thomas Hurdis died after suffering devastating facial wounds on the opening day of the Battle of Polygon Wood in Belgium on 26 September 1917. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission recovery unit in France buried the human remains during a re-unification ceremony on the 20th of July 2018, alongside Australian Defence Force soldiers and living descendants of Private Hurdis.

The re-unification of Private Thomas Hurdis. Source – CWGC

The case of Private Thomas Hurdis shows that displaying the skull of an identifiable soldier is ethically wrong. The soldier did not die fighting in the hope to be reunited back with his family, to then be displayed in a glass cabinet like an artefact. With the large numbers of great war soldiers killed in action whose bodies were never recovered, it is easy for someone viewing these remains to form an emotional connection.

Until the identification of the skull at the Mütter Museum, it acted in the same way the British grave of The Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior holds an unidentified British soldier who was killed in action on a European battlefield during the First World War. The human remains were interned in London on the 11th of November 1920. These human remains were to act as a point of mourning for all the British families who had lost family and friends from 1914-1918. With many bodies lying unrecovered or missing, this became a pivotal focal point for the country to grieve. The skull at the Mütter Museum also holds significance for descendants of ANZAC soldiers killed in the great war whose body had not been recovered; indeed, this skull could have been their relative.

Human remains on public display will always create a powerful emotional connection with the viewer, the remains ancient or relatively recent in historical terms should both be treated with the upmost respect. It is in the hands of museum curators to ensure museums are correctly displaying these remains and taking into consideration public concern on the matter. If the display of these human remains is questioned, then ideas should be taken into account to show the human remains in the most respectful manner and in some instances, like in the case of Private Thomas Hurdis, the remains removed from public display. Displaying human remains from someone who died during the second world war would be frowned upon immensely. As a society we must not let the public display of First World War soldiers to become the norm. Soldiers deserve a private resting place, not a public one on display as a catalogued object.

As someone whose great-grandfather fought at the battle of Poelcappelle in Belgium, as part of the West Yorks 1/6, this is a poignant subject. During the battle for Passchendaele, he received a head injury taking him out of combat. The head injury was severe enough that medics presumed he was dead and put him onto a cart of fallen soldiers. Thankfully, a soldier noticed movement and he was immediately pulled off the cart. This was the end of his war from being part of the initial expeditionary forces, he returned home in 1917 to recover in a London hospital before returning home in 1918 to Sheffield. He received the Silver war badge given to honourably discharged soldiers due to wounds or sickness, and he also received the British war medal and the Victory medal. His physical pain from the war was over, however the mental impact this had on a young 19-year-old would remain with him for life. Like many great war soldiers, he returned but he was not the same young man who left. My grandma tells me her father rarely spoke about the events until later his life, internalising the trauma to keep up a false front that everything is fine. In a period in which men who showed any emotion were perceived as weak, he kept a strong upper lip and carried on with life.

I would feel hurt if the remains of a relative were displayed in a glass case as an object, these soldiers were more than just regimental numbers, they were sons, brothers and fathers. We should therefore treat them with the upmost respect, and this applies to human remains from all periods. It is vital that we humanise remains, so they are not seen as just a collection of bones. This in turn will allow for them to be respected in a museum environment.

Joseph Cyril Pagdin aged 17 in 1916.

Joseph (far right) recovering in a London hospital with fellow injured soldiers,1918.

Sources:

P. Daley. Australian soldier's skull taken from US museum and buried with remains in France

the Guardian

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jul/23/australian-soldiers-skull-taken-from-us-museum-and-buried-with-remains-in-france. July 23rd, 2018

Twitter - @CWGC https://twitter.com/CWGC/status/1020369341374660611 July 20th ,2018.

Thomas Bowers is a recent MA graduate with an MA in Archaeology from the University of Leicester and a BA in Archaeology from Bangor University. He has a keen interest in preserving WW1 and WW2 archaeology and heritage in Britain. You can contact him on thomasbowers1867@gmail.com.

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