dead bodies museums

Should the dead be on display in museums?

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.

Image courtesy of the British Museum

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.

DISCOVER: Gruesome body of a saint on display!

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.

FIND OUT MORE: Galvinism and the science behind Frankenstein

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.

Forbidden History: Insights on Jesus and James Bond!

Theakston

This month, I appear in the new season of Forbidden History presented by Jamie Theakston. You can view it online or download from Sky. So, what can you expect to see me talking about?

  • The historical Jesus. Who was the real Jesus Christ? Forbidden History journeys through the Holy Land to find whether the Messiah really existed and the exact spot where he was crucified
  • The East German Stasi. How did communist East Germany create a ruthless secret police that got one in six of the population spying on everybody else? A fascinating trip back to the Cold War
  • Nazi Art Theft. The astonishing robbery of billions of dollars worth of art by Hitler stashed away in salt mines and other hiding places. And the brave efforts of the Monuments Men to trace priceless paintings and sculptures
  • The real James Bond. Forbidden History asks which actor in the Bond movies comes closest to the real thing? An investigation into what inspired the creation of this compelling character
  • Dead Sea Scrolls. The most incredible biblical discovery in centuries. Parchments written by a fanatical Jewish sect, the Essenes, that could have proven or disproven the existence of Christ. Yet these massively important documents were hidden from public view for decades.
  • Secret societies. All your favourite clandestine organisations under the microscope from Opus Dei to the Illuminati. Who and what are these organisations and do they really control the world?

Make sure not to miss Forbidden History broadcasting on the Yesterday channel, part of UKTV.

London plague pits – the locations!

Most Londoners are oblivious to the number of dead people under their feet – especially those buried in their thousands in plague pits.  And those London plague pit locations are in some very unlikely places.

Here’s a few London plague pits that might make you shudder next time you stroll over them:

Vincent Square – enjoy your picnic in Westminster because you’re sitting on top of a heap of skeletons. The pits extend under nearby government buildings.

Green Park – when the Victoria Line was being built for the London tube in the 1960s, construction workers bumped into a lot of 17th century bones. Pits from the Great Plague of London!

Golden Square – I love the Nordic Bakery on Golden Square but had no idea that during the 1665 plague, the “Searchers” were bringing cart loads of corpses and dumping them here. This must have been one of the most ghoulish of the London plague pits.

Marshall Street/Beak Street – I used to work round here and used the swimming pool at the Marshall Street leisure centre. Yep, there are bodies under that pool! There were several pest houses in the area surrounded by a brick wall to which plague victims were sent. When they died, they were put in plague pits around the modern junction of Marshall Street and Beak Street. Not tens of bodies…not hundreds…thousands!

DISCOVER: Medieval buildings bombed in World War Two

Sainsbury’s Whitechapel – Next time you’re browsing the tinned food or veg, spare a thought for those under the supermarket floor whose shopping days are long gone.

Charterhouse Square – During building work for Crossrail in 2013, a plague pit dating back to the Black Death in 1348 was discovered. Historians believe that up to 50,000 medieval Londoners might have been interred in the area. This makes it top of the London plague pits!