Must admit I’ve seen my fair share of dead bodies in museums. Like all children, when I was first taken to see the ancient Egyptian mummies in the British museum back in the 1970s – I was eyes out on stalks! Take for example this chap below they used to call the “orange man”. He dates from about 3,400BC – also in the British Museum – and from what we call the pre-dynastic period. Now, as a result of seeing him, that term was embedded in my mind aged seven or eight.
His excellent state of preservation is because in the pre-dynastic period – a thousand years before the pyramids you know and love – bodies were buried in the sand. And that was a great preserver! You can still make out his ginger hair.
However – informative though this may be – some think orange man should not be there for us to gawp at. And this issue is becoming ever more pressing.
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Goodbye shrunken heads!
About five years ago, I visited the Horniman Museum in south London and was unable to find a particular exhibit that exerted a ghoulish hold on me when I’d first come to the museum as a child in the 1970s. Back then, a large glass case displayed several shrunken heads.
When I asked a curator where they were on this recent outing, she grimaced and said: “We don’t really put that kind of thing out anymore.” The shrunken heads are still shown in graphic detail on the museum website but are labelled as being “in storage”.
And the Horniman isn’t the only museum vexing over the ethics of corpses in cases. There’s a very heated debate going on behind closed doors about the morals as well as the potential negative PR that is attaching to having heads and bodies for the public to ogle at.
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Tribal groups demand their ancestors back – no more dead bodies in museums
Indigenous peoples, tribes and nations are increasingly animated about their ancestors being exhibits. Concerns have been raised from tribal nations in the United States to aboriginal peoples in Australia – and lots of places in between. And you have allegations of racism or colonialism attaching to the display of Ancient Egyptian mummies or Inca sacrificial victims.
Those hostile parties may not be – for example – Egyptian in the case of the mummies but ‘feel’ or believe they have an affinity with these remains. No matter how tenuous one may feel their claimed link is – it’s now becoming difficult to ignore.
Guidance on displaying dead bodies in museums
The United Kingdom government has issued guidance in the past to museums on how to treat human remains. And since 1996, the UK has been committed to repatriating aboriginal remains to Australia and New Zealand. In one example in 2017, over a thousands remains including 13 skulls were sent back.
The British Museum lists its human remains online and it makes for fascinating reading:
- From Australia: Human skull (adult, male?), covered with pigment; with grass plug in nasal aperture
- From Borneo: Decorated human skull made of bone (human), wood, cane, shell (cowrie), gum.
- From Chile: mummified child’s foot with sandal
- From China: a skeletal human hand with a bangle on the wrist
- From Ecuador: shrunken head with feathers and beetle wings
- From Egypt: Fragments of bone and two teeth from infant sacrifice.
And so it goes on…
Egypt’s recent public display of new mummies
In 2020, the Egyptian authorities invited the media to snap at 59 ancient coffins just discovered. One of them was opened up in a flourish to reveal the mummified body within. In a sign of changing attitudes, many people registered their disgust at this theatricality.
Catholic shrines and death
For many Catholic shrines, removing bodies from display would effectively end their pulling power for both tourists and pilgrims. For example, in Palermo, Sicily you have the Capuchin Catacombs where hundreds of bodies, many in their Sunday best, are hanging from the walls. They date from the 17th to the early 20th century.
The Capuchin Catacombs includes the body of a girl, Rosalia Lombardo, who died in 1920. And yes, she is exceedingly well preserved. I have seen her myself (in 2019). Visitors claim that she blinks at them. I got no blink in case you’re wondering.
But I have to admit this display possibly crosses a line. Why? I suppose the relatively short amount of time that has elapsed since her death; her very young age which is rather creepy in of itself and the fact that the 1920s were not Ancient Egypt.
We were not routinely mummifying bodies at that time. So why not put this poor girl where she should be? In the ground.
Dead crusaders on display
In 1976, I was taken to see the desiccated remains of several bodies in the crypt of Saint Michan’s church in Dublin, preserved by the very dry air underground. In those days, you were invited by the guide to shake hands with one of the bodies. And being a child who liked to show off a bit, I grasped the bony fingers of an 800-year-old crusader.
However, times really have changed. Because two years ago, that wasn’t enough for some vandals who broke through a steel door, stole the aforementioned crusader’s head and “desecrated” the body of a nun. I don’t even want to ask!
It does beg the question though whether these kinds of displays, which have an almost Victorian fairground quality, encourage boorish and despicable behaviour and if their time has been and gone.
Or are we getting too sensitive?
But maybe we’re all being way too sensitive. In 2010, a survey by English Heritage found that only 9% of the public opposed bodies being displayed in museums. I will bet that percentage has risen however. But for museums, it’s not just the wider public that are a concern – but those activist groups representing tribes and nations that feel enough is enough.
What do you think? I’d love to know.