Museum professionals: Hands off our mummies!

The author of a new book on human remains in museums says campaigning curators who try to repatriate or cover up mummies and skeletons in their collections are stifling research and ruining our museum-going experiences.

Tiffany Jenkins

Topics Books

Where have all the mummies gone? Visitors to Bristol City Museum & Art Gallery have been finding it difficult to find its celebrated collection of ancient human remains. The museum once presented its mummies in open coffins, but now keeps the coffins semi-closed because, curators say, that is more respectful.

You can also view a photograph of an unwrapped mummy, but only if you press a button to light up the picture first. An accompanying interactive poll questions visitors on the ethics of such a display. Close to the mummy section is a rare skeleton of a young man who lived in Britain during the Bronze Age, 3,400 years ago. He is in a custom-built case on which a label warns: ‘This display contains human remains’.

This cautionary approach is taking place without public demand for it. In fact, museum-goers expect to see ancient bodies on display. They find it educational and kids love it. And yet professionals are increasingly uncomfortable about displaying human remains and are continually questioning its ethics, covering mummies and skeletons up, removing them altogether, or erecting warning signs.

Over the past 30 years, human remains have become the focus of various campaigns around the world. It was a contentious issue in North America and Australia in the 1980s, but since then has developed from a regional issue affecting local archaeologists, indigenous groups and museums to an international concern involving national museums and governments, too. Various indigenous groups, archaeologists and anthropologists have campaigned for the repatriation of human remains to culturally affiliated groups as a way of making reparations for historical wrongs.

In the late 1990s, a similar debate took place in Britain. After high-profile campaigns that were fiercely opposed by those who use human remains for important research, the Human Tissue Act 2004 was passed. This was an amendment to the 1963 British Museum Act, and it permitted and encouraged the removal of human remains from specific (and previously resistant) museums.

The decisions to repatriate are significant. Museums do not usually deaccession artefacts or human remains. There are legal barriers to, and a general presumption against, doing so. What is more, human remains are highly, and often uniquely, valuable research material. Scientists study them to chart human origins, population diversity and distribution as well as the past environments in which people lived. The removal of such important material puts the role of museums – to develop and diffuse knowledge – in question.

The emergence of the issue in Britain is different in two important respects. Firstly, there was significantly weaker external pressure on institutions here compared to Australasia, America and Canada, which responded to claims for repatriation from indigenous groups. A 2003 survey conducted by the Human Remains Working Group characterised claims from overseas indigenous groups on institutions as ‘low’ and found only 33 such requests on English institutions, seven of which had already been agreed to, and some of which were repeat claims from the same group. Secondly, while elsewhere the focus of campaigns has been human remains associated with indigenous groups who suffered under colonisation, in Britain the scope of problem has been extended by professionals who argue that all human remains require special attention.

Museums have often been sites of controversy. Debates over how to represent the past are predominantly understood among theorists as the result of tensions caused by challenges from external forces; in particular, social movements that make demands regarding the representation of their culture. Debates over human remains and cultural property have generally been understood as influenced by indigenous movements applying pressure on resistant professionals.

In Britain, however, high-profile contestation of museum policy, which has resulted in law changes and major repatriations, is not primarily due to pressure from overseas indigenous groups. Such claims-making has not, in fact, been significant here, while all human remains – even unclaimed ones – have become the focus for activism.

My own research suggests that there is an internal dynamic to changing policies around human remains in the UK that demands greater attention. Here, campaigns have been waged less often by social movements than by museum insiders. Senior curators, directors and policymakers have been instrumental in portraying the holding, display and treatment of human remains as a problem.

These professionals were once gatekeepers, guarding and protecting collections. So why are campaigning museum professionals now dismantling collections from within? They are, in fact, revealing a crisis of cultural authority and are attempting to secure new legitimacy by distancing themselves from a discredited foundational remit.

Let’s examine more closely the crisis of cultural authority, the motivations of the main claims-makers and the problematising of unclaimed human remains.

A crisis of cultural authority

Museums have always held cultural authority. They play a key role in affirming ideas about the pursuit and organisation of knowledge. While aspects of the museum can be traced back to the medieval Schatz, a treasury of goods collected by the Habsburg monarchy, or to private collecting in the Renaissance, it is the development of public collections in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that rationalised collections into a specific meaningful public context. The development of the museum and the rationale behind displaying artefacts were informed by Enlightenment ideas about the absolute character of knowledge. This knowledge was seen to be something discoverable through the methods of rationalism, which were regarded as universally applicable.

In the past 40 years, the foundational principles of museum institutions have undergone severe scrutiny and this has led to a crisis of cultural authority. In addition to the constraints and pressures arising from the operations of the market, the central tenets of the Enlightenment have been called into question. Whilst there was always hostility towards the principles of this period, a number of intellectual trends since the late 1960s have consolidated this critical outlook, challenging truth claims and the idea of the museum as a distinct realm apart from social and political forces.

Through postmodernism, cultural theory and post-colonial theory, the traditional justifications of the museum have been interrogated and challenged. Culture and science have come to be viewed, not as universal or objective, but as particular expressions of European prejudice.

The debates over objective truth and relativism were rapidly assimilated into museology. The development of museums in Western societies, a wide group of museologists and practitioners has argued, occurred in specific historical circumstances and served the interests of the dominant classes.

Internal claims-makers

Anthropologists, archaeologists and museum professionals, initially from North America and Australia, have been key in framing the problems of keeping human remains in museum collections. It was at the inaugural World Archaeological Congress (WAC) in 1986 that concerns were first raised. The congress’s national secretary, anthropologist Peter Ucko, had previously been a principal at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies in Canberra. Along with indigenous activists and American and Australian academics and professionals, Ucko took the opportunity to express concerns regarding the treatment of human remains of indigenous groups. It then became a central issue for the WAC, which lobbied the museum community in Britain, arranging meetings for them with overseas claimant groups. Ucko and anthropologist Jane Hubert assumed ownership of the problem in Britain, acting as issue entrepreneurs.

Museum professionals were highly receptive to the campaign. In 1997, the British Museums Association commissioned the museologist and activist Moira Simpson to undertake two research projects to determine its members’ views about repatriation. Simpson found the vast majority of respondents accepted the notion. Only three out of 123 respondents were categorically opposed to it. However, only 17 institutions out of 164 had received enquiries about repatriation. This suggests a hospitable reaction to the concept of repatriation that was not stimulated by specific requests.

The main activists were professionals who have campaigned within museums. For one senior curator from a university museum, being an activist was more important to him than his area of studied expertise. As he explained to me: ‘I am an archaeologist. My specialism is the Persian period. A big find has just happened and I should go, I am the expert in this area, but I would much rather stay and do this [campaign around repatriation]. This is more pressing and important for me now.’

This personal identification with the problem of human remains speaks to its symbolic nature. Many within the sector are searching for a new mission, and the old way – researching the past and presenting that research to the public – is no longer considered valuable. Indeed, it is seen as potentially damaging by many. Another campaigner I interviewed, a senior archaeologist at a university museum, argued that museums need to change, suggesting that they should play a different role today: ‘Museums have to grow up… to be less concerned with where things are and less concerned with maybe issues around control and authority… just to make sure that artefacts or other material over which the museum has responsibility are in a position where they can do most good’.

Unclaimed human remains

The question of who owns human remains has become a lightening rod for a wider debate over the purpose of the museum. The increasing focus on human remains as past people as well as scientific objects signals a repositioning of the museum in terms of its social relevance. It is this that helps to explain the continued problematisation of the display of human remains.

An additional influence was the linking of the problem of human remains in museum collections with a major political controversy over the retention of children’s body parts at UK hospitals, including at Alder Hey hospital in Liverpool. The high-profile Bristol Royal Infirmary Inquiry (2000) and the Royal Liverpool Children’s Inquiry (2001) investigated the circumstances leading to the removal, retention and disposal of human tissue, including children’s organs, and led to legislation on the issue of consent.

Campaigners suggested the two issues – retaining the remains of those who were long-since dead and the organs of recently deceased children – were equivalent. And by linking these two issues, and others, they tried to suggest that there was a general public outcry over the use of all body parts.

For example, writing in a submission to the Human Remains Working Group in 2001, archaeologist and repatriation campaigner Cressida Fforde argued: ‘The Alder Hey scandal has further highlighted the inequitable treatment of human remains under the law in Britain. This scandal, as well that which followed the discovery of the treatment of the bodies of those who had died in the Marchioness disaster, demonstrates that not only is concern for appropriate treatment of the dead not only an indigenous matter, but that there is a wide void between general public assumptions about how remains are treated and the reality of what sometimes actually takes place.’

With the conflation of these two separate issues – the treatment of the bodies of the recently deceased and the retention of the bodies of the long dead – the idea that holding any kind of human remains is problematic entered into museum policy and practice. Notably, this sensitivity is not shared by the public, despite activists’ attempts to suggest so. Surveys demonstrate that most people expect and want to see human remains on show in museums. In fact, they are big crowd-pullers. Around 90 per cent of respondents to an opinion poll of 1,000 people commissioned by English Heritage said they were comfortable with keeping prehistoric human remains in museums.

This has not deterred activists within the profession from campaigning against the display of human remains. In May 2008, three Egyptian mummies at Manchester Museum were covered with a white sheet ‘out of respect’, without any request to do so by present-day Egyptians or the public. It was only after protests from local audiences and the media that the museum uncovered the mummies, but it stated that it still wished to continue the conversation about how to respect the human remains.

In a revealing study, Hugh Kilmister, a curator at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology in London, set out to investigate whether museums were becoming ‘unduly sensitive’ about the issues surrounding human remains. In 2003, Kilmister interviewed museum visitors about their attitudes to displays. He found that there was a ‘very high proportion’ — 82.5 per cent of visitors surveyed — who believed that the museums should be allowed to display human remains in ‘whatever way they see fit’.

Kilmister still concluded that the display and treatment of human remains needs to change. As he put it: ‘Although not as contentious as the display of Aboriginal or Native American remains, the public is generally positive about the display of ancient Egyptian remains, but we perhaps need to look at the future re-display of these remains.’ In relation to the high level of public trust in professionals to decide the future of human remains, Kilmister commented, ‘trust is perhaps not justified’.

Seventeen museums have since drafted policies on human remains, with most advocating that signs are erected to warn visitors in advance. The Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro does not show any images, other than wrapped mummies, in its online or publicity material. The Museum of London’s policy states: ‘As a general principle, skeletons will not be on “open display” but located in such a way as to provide them some “privacy”.’ It continues: ‘The Museum will normally not allow its holdings of human remains to be photographed or filmed for external media purposes.’

The idea that all human remains should be treated differently has been internalised by sections of the museum profession without requests from claim-making groups. So professionals are taking it upon themselves to remove and hide their exhibits, which threatens research and public access. In doing so, they are also dismantling from within the purpose of the museum as an institution, which is to research and display important artefacts and human remains.

Next time you go to a museum, make sure to ask them where they keep their skeletons. Rather than being on show to you and me, they may well be in the closet.

Tiffany Jenkins is the author of Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections: The Crisis of Cultural Authority, published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)). Visit Tiffany’s website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Books


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today