Lindow Manchester


Contesting Human Remains

A new book appeared that discusses the treatment of human remains in museums. Written by Tiffany Jenkins, Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections criticizes museums for hiding their mummies and other human remains even though they are popular with the public for fear of offending pagans and other minority groups.

The Manchester Museum was mentioned several times in articles about the publication of the book appeared at the time in the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph. The Museum removed the head of Worsley Man from display and consulted with the public about the covering of Egyptian mummies a couple of years ago. Jenkins presents these and other examples involving the display of human remains as part of a radical change in policy by museums which, she says, have been unduly influenced by the claims of minority groups such as pagans.

Native Australian photographed outside Manchester Museum 2000s

Repatriation of human remains: Manchester Museum 2002

Requests from indigenous communities in Australia, New Zealand and the Americas for the repatriation of human remains, together with public concern about the retention of organs in hospitals and pathology labs have contributed to the feeling that human remains deserve sensitive treatment.  The Human Tissue Act, 2004 came into force to regulate their retention and storage.

Picking up on the perceived need to treat human remains sensitively many museums have written and implemented policies affecting material in their collections.  Dr Jenkins says this is being driven by professional insecurity rather than public demand. Whilst it’s certainly  true the majority of the public want human remains to continue to be displayed in museums there’s also a feeling that this should be done respectfully.  There is  a danger that museums’ attempts to consult with the public about how this can be achieved are dismissed as ‘political correctness’  or caving-in to pressure groups.

The process of consultation is sometimes mistaken for the end result – the trial covering,  partial covering and display of uncovered mummies a few years ago was presented by local media as a final and unilateral decision on the part of the Museum, which was only overturned after public protest. I worked at Manchester Museum at the time and I understood this ‘covering up’  to have been part of a public consultation in order to see how visitors felt and which of the three different potential ways of displaying such remains visitors preferred.  Such misunderstandings have made the free and open discussion about human remains much more difficult. As a university museum it is part of our role to stimulate debate, not only in the interests of students, but also to engage the public.  If the act of stimulating debate about a current issue is mis-represented as ‘political correctness’ it effectively closes down discussion of that issue. I fear that it will inhibit museums from interacting with the public on this and other important issues.

What is being contested isn’t necessarily what happens to human remains but more inclusive methods of working by museums.  That probably says more about the influence of old-fashioned ways of thinking about museum practice than it says about human remains per se.

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[…] the life of the exhibition such as ‘How do you think Lindow Man died?’ and ‘Should museums show human remains?‘. Some 12,500 comments cards were filled in by […]

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