Skeletons in the (museum) Closet: Part 1

Families objected this week to the National September 11 Memorial and Museum‘s plan to place unidentified human bone fragments inside of the museum rather than in an above ground tomb. According to The New York Times, several individuals felt that such treatment of the bones would be akin to displaying them in a “Ripley’s Believe It or Not”-type exhibit, invoking images of a sensationalized pseudo-museums.

Museum officials say the room containing the remains will be controlled by the city medical examiner, even though it will be entered through the museum. The wall concealing the remains would have a quotation from Virgil on it, and there would be a small plaque indicating that there were human remains behind it. Museumgoers would pass the wall as they walked from one exhibit area to the other.

How should human remains be viewed in a museum context? Should they be viewed at all?

A couple of years ago, the American Museum of Natural History turned over 12 skulls and other blood-stained human remains to tribes in Northern Mexico for interment. The bones had been taken by American anthropologist Ales Hrdlicka following a massacre committed by Mexican troops who killed roughly 150 men, women, and children in 1902. Hrdlicka purportedly wandered upon the carnage and decided to make the anthropological best of it. He used a machete to hack off the heads of the bodies and then boiled off the flesh before sending them north to New York. (you can read more about that here).

In the case of the Hrdlicka remains, it seems more than reasonable for the museum to return the skulls and artifacts of the massacre. But if the bones had been in a museum dedicated to educating the public about the history of genocide against native Mexican peoples, I might feel different. The 9/11 Museum is both a place of honoring the memory of the dead and a place of education and information. No one seems to think that the human remains should leave the site. And the bone fragments would not be a part of the museum’s collection.

But is there a good reason for the remains to be in the museum?

According to the UK Museums Association:

Increasingly museums are removing human remains from their collections, for example returning them to their countries of origin, often for reburial.

Australian Aboriginals, New Zealand Maori and Native Americans feel particularly strongly that remains of their ancestors should not be located in museums. Some UK museums returned human remains in the 1990s. Others, such as the British Museum, have begun to do so only recently.

(For whatever reason, much of my online research into museum policy on human remains led me to Britain. Here’s an interesting piece.)

I still don’t have a firm impression of what is acceptable treatment of human remains and what isn’t. And I have the feeling that it will take me several more posts to come to any conclusions…

So stay tuned for more in the series: Skeletons in the (museum) Closet


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