Explaining Why Human Remains are a Problem

Explaining Why Human Remains are a Problem

In 1999, the Lakota Sioux Ghost Dance shirt, held in the Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow, was repatriated to tribal elders in South Dakota. It was associated with the Battle of Wounded Knee and considered sacred to the Lakota Sioux. As with skeletons and body parts, objects in museum collections have been requested and their care problematized by indigenous groups, academics and professionals, partly through a motif of ‘making amends’ for colonization, and a case has been made regarding the therapeutic impact of the repatriation of such material. Indeed, the Native American Graves Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) included funerary artefacts, objects of cultural patrimony and sacred objects, as well as human remains.

Concerns about human remains in Britain are, at times, intertwined with concerns about artefacts and sacred objects. The Museums and Galleries Commission policy Restitution and Repatriation: Guidelines for Good Practice (Legget 2000) advises that claims for human remains or sacred objects should be treated with sensitivity, implying that the two are similar. Taking a different stance, the Human Remains Working Group Report primarily argues that human remains have a unique status: ‘Human remains, irrespective of age, provenance or kind, occupy a unique category, distinct from all other museum objects. There is a qualitative distinction between human remains and artefacts. Human remains require special consideration and treatment’ (DCMS 2003b: 166). However, while stressing the uniqueness of human remains, the same report tentatively ventures that sacred objects require similar consideration, and proposes setting up a Ministerial Advisory Group to make recommendations on sacred objects and objects of spiritual or religious significance (p. 160). A consultation that followed asked respondents to consider the future of sacred objects and whether there should be a survey of their holdings (DMCS 2004). No survey was conducted, nor an advisory group established. The burgeoning interest in sacred objects lost momentum. Despite being associated with human remains as an issue, artefacts have not been the focus of consistent attention in Britain.

Since the implementation of the Human Tissue Act 2004 many activists, especially those who were occupied with redressing the detrimental impact of colonization and the therapeutic possibilities of repatriation, have extended their claims-making activities to making demands for the repatriation of artefacts, special treatment for sacred objects, and the cultural stimulation of indigenous communities (see for example Simpson 2007; 2008). Issue entrepreneurs, such as Tristram Besterman and Cressida Fforde, have continued to research collections, looking for undocumented human remains from overseas community groups, concentrating on the British Museum, National Museums Scotland and Oxford University. The anthropologist Laura Peers, from Pitt Rivers Museum Oxford, promoted an (unsuccessful) internal review, to remove unclaimed shrunken heads (from overseas indigenous communities) from display.

In Britain during the same period, other campaigners, far fewer in number, promoted the cause of Pagan groups, putting the case for treating all human remains with respect, and arguing for the covering of Egyptian mummies, as I go on to discuss in Chapter 6. Claims-makers need to keep the issue fresh and often create new problems or expand the issue (Best 1990), and these activities are clearly one way of doing so. Not all of the original campaigners have pursued the agenda of problematizing all human remains in British collections, but they have noticeably refrained from publicly criticizing others who have taken this direction. While the focus on the problem of all human remains has not been such a successful claim as the focus on human remains from overseas indigenous groups with associations with colonization, it has had a limited impact. Certainly, claims made about human remains have been more successful than claims made in relation to artefacts.

I now address why human remains have been subject to such an intense and divisive a battle, why this focus has been more successful than the focus on artefacts, and explore what features human remains hold that make them an effective locus for debate. In Chapter 1 I noted that activists linked the problem of overseas indigenous remains, which they tied to period of colonization, with contemporary controversies over body parts stored by hospitals. This was a highly effective linking to a prominent issue. The association presented the impact of colonization on overseas communities, the illicit removal of human remains from museums, and the unauthorized retention of body parts from children, as existing on a continuum. The alignment stimulated greater attention to the problem of overseas human remains and furthered the purchase of the problem of all human remains in museum collections. It had legislative consequence in the Human Tissue Act 2004, which introduced the need for a licence for all human material.

Chapter 1 also illustrated how activists referred to human remains with terms such as ‘body pieces’, which rhetorically evoked the more empathetic body than could be evoked with objects and artefacts. The language employed by campaigners that invoked the defleshed body effectively constructed a ‘victim’. Chapter 2 demonstrated that in order to protect cultural artefacts from repatriation claims, professionals at a national museum responded to claims by promoting the unique qualities of human remains. Reacting to the claims on human remains, those resistant to repatriation tried to insulate the rest of the collection from repatriation claims by elevating the status of human remains as different and unique material. Nonetheless, this advocacy work, which has promoted human remains as unique or the focus of attention, would not have had such considerable purchase unless it was reinforced by broader cultural and social trends. Campaigners gravitated towards human remains rather than artefacts, because these had a wider cultural resonance.

In this chapter I show that human remains are an effective symbolic object that can locate particular issues, due to their unique properties, as well as broader contemporary social influences on their cultural meanings. In other words, there is something special about human remains as opposed to artefacts, which contributed to their symbolic efficacy. Crucially, how this is interpreted and granted meaning is historically contingent, and enacted by those living in the present.


The metaphorical work of human remains has historically been evoked in a variety of ways through the use of human remains—both the actual remains and visual representations—by different actors and interest groups. Theorists Hallam, Hockey and Howarth (1999) note the symbolic use of human remains across history and discuss how their display has been put to use in protest, but they also demonstrate how they can be used to reinforce political and institutional authority. For example, the body of Vladimir Ilich Lenin was embalmed after his death in 1924, and lay in state in its mausoleum as a place of pilgrimage. This was an act opposed by Lenin’s closest advisors, who recognized it as a move linked with political developments. Preserving and presenting Lenin’s corpse was part of an attempt to consolidate Soviet power and Stalinism (Chamberlain and Pearson 2001: 35–37). Lincoln (1989) describes how during the Spanish Civil War, opposition by the political left towards the church was expressed by leaving the exhumed bodies of priests and nuns in churches. Lincoln interprets the strategic placing of these human remains as an iconoclastic act, and an attempt to constitute a different social identity in opposition to the existing social order. In an act that reinforced medical authority, the philosopher Jeremy Bentham chose to display his body as an ‘auto icon’ in University College London, which acts as an affirmation of the cause of medicine and dissection (Fuller 1998). This observation, that human remains can be used in what seem to be paradoxical roles, questioning and reinforcing authority, illustrates the ambivalent meanings of this material and how it can be manipulated to promote different agendas.

In The Political Lives of Dead Bodies, anthropologist Katherine Verdery (1999) analyzes the use and meaning of dead bodies in post-Socialist countries. She examines the transformation of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union following the end of Communist rule, documenting how dead bodies served as sites of political conflict and the reordering of political structures, which involved the elite and large populations. The bodies of named rulers or religious figures, and nameless victims from the past, were exhumed or buried to legitimize new elites and associate them with, or distance them from, the past. Verdery presents a number of reasons as to why human remains are uniquely useful symbolic objects. One of the key properties about human remains as symbolic objects, she identifies, is that they are ambiguous. There is no one meaning: ‘Remains are concrete, yet protean; they do not have a single meaning but are open to many different readings’ (Verdery 1999: 28).

Human remains hold a social category as a ‘person’ (human, body), but are also a ‘thing’ (remains, corpse, cadaver, skeleton). As a ‘border subject’, human remains disturb the boundaries between the real and the not-real, between person and non-person. They have once embodied personhood and, at the same time, that personhood has come to an end (Geary 1986). In anthropology, observations about ambivalence of the dead body are developed in the work of Mary Douglas (1966). The liminality of the body means, for Douglas, that it is a source of metaphors about the organization of society. Anthropologist Ewa Domanska (2006) builds on these observations, in her work on the missing in Argentina, where she analyzes the divided reaction to those who have disappeared1. Domanska shows that the missing or present human remains become a focus for conflicting interests amongst the living, which allows them to mean different things to different people and thus become the locus of a contemporary political struggle. As she writes:

The dead body is a witness (‘a witness from beyond the grave’) and evidence at the same time. It is also an alternative form of testimony. In this way it serves the living, becoming the space of conflict between different interests of power, knowledge, and the sacred. The body is politicized, it becomes an institution, and death itself turns out to be more of a political fact than an individual experience. (Domanska 2006: 344)

This observation, that the dead body is the focus of a struggle of different interests and meanings within the living community, is important. Domanska’s point that the ambivalent status of the missing body, also when it is made present, allows it to become to focus of diverging claims manipulated by the living is insightful. Her observations suggest that different claims and often opposing conceptions of the meaning of the dead body can be located on human remains, or on the idea of them. While holding no particular meaning in and of themselves, human remains provoke important associations with particular meanings: the sacred, and knowledge, which means they can locate these conflicts with resonance.

Museologist Paul Williams (2007) discusses the use of human remains on display in memorial museums. He observes that the display of human remains is sometimes made central to the understanding of the historical traumatic event documented in such monuments and museums, although not without controversy. He too notes that human remains appear to hold profound meaning, although this meaning of human remains is open to interpretation. In particular, he explains, they appeal to the contemporary popular idea that something was ‘there’: ‘[B]oth irreducibly personal and yet unable to convey much beyond the person’s demise, human remains possess an unsettling ambiguity. Second, bones fulfil that primary urge amongst visitors to history museums to experience an object that was actually there’ (Williams 2007: 40). Verdery discusses the idea that human remains connote a sacred meaning. They are not just any old symbols, she explains—they can be associated with life and human beings. For Verdery, they can evoke ‘the awe, uncertainty, and fear associated with “cosmic” concerns, such as the meaning of life and death’ (Verdery 1999: 31). Verdery argues that this is one reason why human remains lend themselves particularly well to politics in times of major upheaval.2

Another feature of human remains that makes them effective symbolic objects, Verdery suggests, is that they are material things. Human remains are a physical object, unlike concepts or ideas, and can thus locate the ideas and values with which they become associated. As she writes:

[A] body’s materiality can be critical to its symbolic efficacy: unlike notions such as ‘patriotism’ or ‘civil society’, for instance, a corpse can be moved around, displayed, and strategically located in specific places [ … ] [T]heir corporeality makes them important means of localizing a claim. (Verdery 1999: 27)

The materiality of human remains—the fact that they are a physical object—is one reason why human remains can become symbolic of the shifts in the purpose of the museum institution. When taken off display, or sent to different groups and countries, the process, in this context, indicates that their study is no longer considered central to the purpose of the museum. These actions perform the distancing of a commitment to an empirical rationale.

Verdery’s related insight is that while the meanings human remains have are culturally constructed and can be manipulated, their physicality and association with a person can suggest the opposite. While the meanings of human remains change, they can be presented as having one meaning. This is important in the construction of the problem of human remains in British collections, where there were a number of definitional debates. The definition of human remains, however, was rarely under discussion, as illustrated by the policy papers on human remains published by different museums. There are 17 policy documents pertaining to specific museums,3 and these show a degree of confusion about how to treat this material. They all differ slightly in relation to how human remains should be held or displayed and why, how sensitive or scientifically valuable the material is, and how it should be used in education projects. There is no comparable confusion when it comes to defining human remains. The majority use the definition issued in the DCMS Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums:

Human remains: In this guidance the term human remains is used to mean the bodies, and parts of bodies, of once living people from the species Homo sapiens (defined as individuals who fall within the range of anatomical forms known today and in the recent past). This includes osteological material (whole or part skeletons, individual bones or fragments of bone and teeth), soft tissue including organs and skin, embryos and slide preparations of human tissue. (DCMS 2005: 9)

Only two museums out of the seventeen—Manchester University Museum and Bolton Museum and Archive Services—try to extend this definition. The Manchester policy states:

The Museum extends the definition of human remains given in the DCMS guidelines to cover osteological material (whole or part skeletons, individual bones or fragments of bone and teeth), ashes, soft tissue including organs and akin, blood, hair, embryos and slide preparations of human tissue. (MUM 2007: 6)

As with Manchester, the policy for Bolton also includes hair and nails (Bolton 2007). Even so, despite attempting the extending the definition of human remains, what is pertinent here is that the definition still applies to recognizably human material. The stability of the definition is important to locating claims, in this instance.

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