Treatment of Human Remains in a Museum Context
This Spotlight of the Month is an essay on the treatment of human remains in a Belgian museum context. This reflection implies the study of the remains as well as its preservation, i.e. storage and/or exhibition. For this matter, ethical and museological aspects are observed through legislation and a few examples from Belgium.
The birth of my fascination with human remains started in the Gallo-Roman museum in Tongeren. There were two skeletons on display, side by side in plexiglass cases. I was 4 years old and instantly mystified by the intricacy and poetry of a set of human remains laid out in anatomical order. Although, being a new experience, I had no idea which attitude I was meant to take. These were human beings, after all. The problem was solved by my mother, a trained nurse, asking one simple question: “Which one of these do you think is a man and which one is a woman, and how can you tell ?” I muttered a guess and proceeded to receive my first lesson in human anatomy, as she decided to point to a post-cranial marker, the pelvis, as being a good indicator of sex. And with that information, human bones joined the ranks of my existential questions.
Even for adults, the most frequent concern in a museum is that exhibiting human remains evoke a sense of horror, following the public’s fear or fascination with death. The context in which they are exhibited is important. Indeed, Christian beliefs taught us that our dead are to rest in peace and buried in consecrated ground. But it’s also, and somewhat paradoxically, acceptable to display relics, including the bones, that were supposedly belonging to a saint. So, displaying archaeological remains is fair but the circumstances are vital.
“Most archaeologists consciously treat the dead with respect and try to avoid offending religious or secular sensibilities when dealing with human remains.” (Quintelier et al. 2011)
The reason human remains should be preserved as such is that a historical or cultural significance can be attributed to them. The research value of human remains is beyond discussion. The informations provided by these remains tell us so much about the life and death of both individuals and populations. During the anthropological analysis, the personal sphere meets scientific data in the best way possible. This science is so close to the finality of human experience that it is tied up in belief, reverence and taboo. This is why exhibiting human remains raises ethical concerns. This debate is best waged between experts on a case by case basis. In such circumstances, respect and mutual understanding are the glue of the human interactions.
“Displays of human remains in museums or exhibitions are popular with the general public and are acceptable provided they follow the museum’s deontological code guidelines.” (Quintelier et al. 2011)
In Belgium, there is no detailed legislation with specific actions for dealing with human remains (yet). Only short recommendations are stated in international codes (ICOM, UNESCO, etc.). The keywords are storage, respect and care, according to professional standards and beliefs.
The Valletta Convention (Council of Europe) only encourages the exhibition of archaeological finds, including human remains.
The code of ethics established by the International Council of Museums (ICOM) in 2004 is a little more explicit: “Collections of human remains and material of sacred significance should be acquired only if they can be housed securely and cared for respectfully. This must be accomplished in a manner consistent with professional standards and the interests and beliefs of members of the community, ethnic or religious groups from which the objects originated, where these are known.” (Code of Ethics 2.5) This definition is limited: it does not state the options available for preservation and exhibition of the human remains. However, “in most cases, the human remains are stored in archaeological or scientific depositories, where they will be kept available for future studies. The type of container depends on the institution in charge of storing the skeletons, but usually the remains are preserved in wooden or plastic boxes.” (Quintelier et al. 2011)
UNESCO gives an interdisciplinary set of guidelines for the treatment of human remains in a scientific and heritage context. Interestingly, a parallel is drawn in the relevant heading between human remains and venerated sites (Rule 5). It implies that bones deserve care and attention as much as consecrated grounds.
"Rule 5 calls for carefully considering unnecessary impact, in calling for due respect of human remains and venerated sites. In claiming respect for other people’s feelings, it touches upon one of the fundamental dilemmas and areas of contention in archaeology and heritage management." (Manual UCH, R5)
Also, interference of politics is mentioned as frequent in the choices made regarding science and education. That is how, following the protest of a local community, the discussions of repatriation and potential reburial can get into the public’s hands, and out of that of experts ; however, this is rarely a problem in Belgium.
A few museums from Belgium were taken as examples to reflect on the reality of human remains’ treatment. Treating remains respectfully can only be defined through learning experience. In the last century, different products (clay, wax, cement) were used to showcase skulls and other significant parts of ancient skeletons. Then, we realized that such material was in fact compromising the integrity of the remains.
In 2001, the Guislain museum in Gent exhibited a set of colonial skulls. In 2005, the Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA) in Tervuren organised an exhibit about ‘The colonial memory of Congo’. Such display show that dialogue between museologists, medical historians and physical anthropologists form a fertile basis for explaining aspects of the human past - even relatively recent - that would otherwise remain obscure.
Another example of the treatment of human remains constitutes the permanent collection of mummies and skeletons in the Cinquantenaire (RMAH). There is an ongoing research on Andean mummies (IRAM project), including the famous 'Rascar Capac' mummy showcased, using modern day scanning techniques alongside physical anthropological methods.
Other cases correspond to a more ‘realistic’ lay-out of a skeleton in a grave covered by a pane of glass. This system engages the visitor with the remains and allows good climate monitoring. In the Archaeological Museum of Arlon and the Gaumais Museum in Virton (province of Luxemburg), the remains are thus presented as if we are giving the audience a glimpse into a gravesite. In the Provincial museum in Velzeke, a set of human remains are displayed just like they were discovered: at the bottom of a well. These settings ressemble of a person’s final resting place without the confrontational image of having a real dead individual on display.
In conclusion, while the legal framework for the treatment of human remains clearly lacks precision, international frameworks such as ICOM and UNESCO, give us ethical keys for the treatment of human remains (care, respect, preservation). There are some lines that can be drawn in the way human remains are exhibited in Belgium. Some museums present a very human story in their setting by creating the illusion of a gravesite. This is, in my opinion, a sign that the respectful treatment of human remains is an issue that is taken into consideration by curators.
For a material that sparks such emotional and intellectual responses, human remains, and the disciplines related to their study, could benefit from ethical exhibition. This should be a great way for advancing in the research of physical anthropology, by explaining it to a wide public.
& the editorial team
Council of Europe, 1992. The Valletta Convention.
International Council of Museums, 2001. Code of Ethics.
Quintelier K., Malevez A., Orban R., Toussaint M., Vandenbruaene and Geneviève Yernaux, 2011. Belgium/België/Belgique/Belgien. In. Márquez-Grant N. & Fibiger L., The Routledge Handbook of Archaeological Human Remains and Legislation. An international guide to laws and practice in the excavation and treatment of archaeological human remains, ed. Routledge: London: p. 47-60.
UNESCO 2017. Manual for Cultural Heritage: General principles. Human Remains &Venerated Sites (Rule 5).