Human Remains in Museums

Whether or not museums should have and display human remains is a much debated topic and a very interesting one. It’s also one that’s close to my heart having completed a dissertation as part of my Masters in Museum Studies entitled ‘What frameworks do different repositories in Northern Ireland follow in relation to the care of human remains’.

There are arguments for and against repositories like museums containing and caring for human remains. Firstly you have to understand that human remains are different from any other type of collection; they are not just objects, they are the remains of people. It’s pretty universally agreed that they deserve respect as such, but saying this, there is no universal approach for the care of human remains across different repositories.

Across the world, many of the human remains that are cared for by repositories such as museums arrived there under dubious circumstances. In the late 18th and early 19th century body snatching, colonial collecting and badly recorded archaeological excavations are some of the prime examples of where current collections of human remains originate. It’s an upsetting truth, but it happened, it’s part of history – should it all be hidden away in the pretence that such things didn’t happen?

It is worth taking into account the different ways in which human remains are viewed. Bienkowski (2006) expands on three worldviews that help to categorise the relationship between the body and mind. This can help to clarify the expectations of the living in relation to the care of the dead (Giesen and White, 2013: 16). These views are dualism, materialism and animism. Dualism describes the body dying at death but the mind living on, as in Christianity. Materialism is where both body and mind cease to live on; such is the belief of Atheists. Animism follows the idea that both the body and mind survive death, a belief held by Australian Aboriginals and the New Zealand Maori. Understanding these views helps to explain many repatriation claims, where individuals want their ancestors, who live on it their remains, to be released from museum collections.

Repatriation is often contested, with the strongest rhetoric made by those claiming that to repatriate is to ‘destroy history’ (Jenkins, 2008: 105). From a scientific perspective, human remains can represent a ‘voice’ from the past, since ‘bones and teeth bear the physical signs of a person’s diet, disease, stress and lifestyle’ (Larsen, 2000: 1). To repatriate human remains would result in a potential loss of information. As such, it has been reported by the media as a debate of knowledge versus humanity (Kennedy, 2006).

Legislation and guidance concerning human remains has developed over many years. In the UK the treatment of the ancient dead was initially subject to Common Law, which stated that there is no property in a corpse. Legislation was first introduced in the 19th century to regulate grave robbing which supplied medical schools for dissection.

The Human Tissue Act (2004), which is regulated by the Human Tissue Authority (2004), was put in place for similar reasons, to regulate the retention of human remains. This covers ‘Any bodies, or parts of bodies, of once living people from the Homo Sapien species, including hair and nails removed post-mortem’, less than 100 years old. Obviously this is a vital regulatory body, but the licensing side mainly applies to the remains of the more recent dead.

The Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums (2005) was issued following the 2003 report by the Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) Working Group on Human Remains and the subsequent 2004 consultation on that document. It was set up by the DCMS primarily to deal with repatriation claims made to the UK for human remains and was issued in support of Section 47 of the Human Tissue Act, which names 9 national museums that are able to deaccession human remains under 1000 years old. Although these were its primary aims, it was drafted as a set of principles relating more generally to the treatment of any human remains. This Guidance is merely a recommendation relying on proactive organisations to follow it. It has received some criticisms because its use of the work ‘Museum’ is misleading as non-museum storage, such are archaeological contractors, do not recognise it as relating to their repository.

Should museums display human remains? It might be one of the most heated museum debates. Should the remains of an ancient individual whose family we do not know, whose beliefs we do not full understand, who has been taken from the place they were laid to rest, be put on display? The counterargument is just as persuasive. Human remains are incredible for sharing information about the past. In Western society few people routinely encounter human remains, museums are one of the only places left that can present both the frailty and the incredible wonder that is the human body in real terms. Their presence in a museum is often a unique chance for the public to see death, a taboo subject the reality of which is often hidden away. Displayed in a respectful manner, relevant and accurate information, human remains are an important addition to museums. They create conversation and understanding for visitors and present death rituals and practices in a manner that material culture can not.


Bienkowski, (2006) ‘Persons, things and archaeology: contrasting world-views of mind, bodies and death’ in Respect for Ancient British Human Remains: Philosophy and Practice conference proceedings

Department of Culture Media and Sport (2005) Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums. London: DCMS

Fforde, C. (2004) Collecting the Dead: Archaeology and the Reburial Issue. London: Duckworth

Garnett, E. (2014) What Frameworks Do Different Repositories in Northern Ireland Follow in Relation to the Care of Human Remains. Unpublished MA dissertation. Newcastle: Newcastle University

Giesen, M. (2013) Curating Human Remains: Caring for the Dead in the United Kingdom. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press

Giesen, M. and White, L. (2013) ‘International Perspectives towards Human Remains Curation’ in Curating Human Remains: Caring for the Dead in the United Kingdom. ed. by Giesen, M. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 13-23

Haley, S. (1999) ‘Death after Death’ in The Loved Body’s Corruption. Archaeological contributions to the study of human mortality by Downes, J. and Pollard, T. Glasgow: Cruithne Press, 1-8

Human Tissue Act (2004) Human Tissue Act

Human Tissue Authority (2014) List of Licenced Establishments

Jenkins, T. (2008) ‘Dead bodies: The changing treatment of human remains in British museum collections and the challenge to the traditional model of the museum’, Mortality 13(2), 105-118

Kennedy, H. (2006) ‘Knowledge or humanity’ in The Guardian

Larsen, C. S. (2000) Skeletons in Our Closet. Revealing our past through bioarchaeology. Oxford: Princeton University Press


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