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March 6, 2016

A Morbid Fascination: Should Human Remains Still be on Display?

By Aubrey Catrone, 2015 ARCA alumna 

“‘Stolen from death.’ The Casts. The Photography.” main exhibit, panoramic view, Image Credit: Countdown Blog
For centuries, civilizations have been built around religion. And, with religion comes burial rituals. Yet, it is these rituals that intimate humans, as a species, are perpetually haunted by the uncertainty of what comes after death. Burial rituals spanning the mummification of the Ancient Egyptians to the funeral rights of modern day Catholics reveal a belief in afterlife for which the deceased must be prepared. However, human remains themselves serve as a reminder of the brevity of individual lives. They represent the only tangible knowledge of the afterlife: decomposition. Perhaps it is this mystery that fuels our interest in the physical remnants of life.

Hordes of tourists pour into the city of Pompeii each year to explore not only a lost city but also the havoc wreaked by the 79 AD eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. It is this inexplicable lure to death and destruction that elucidates a disconcerting aspect of humanity. My sojourn to the archaeological site, during the Summer of 2015, revealed patrons unperturbed by advertisements for their special exhibit, “‘Stolen from death.’ The casts. The photography.” Throughout the park, larger than life posters depicted the writhing bodies of those who died in the eruption of 79 AD. In their palpable anticipation to reach the “main event,” I witnessed tourists captivated by the plaster casts found throughout the ruins of the UNESCO site. They jeered and pointed at the bodies strewn about haphazardly or encased in glass as if taunting a circus freak show. There was no reprieve from the glorification of suffering when wandering through the city. 

“Stolen from Death’s" main exhibit was housed within a temporary, wooden pyramid constructed in the community’s amphitheater. Patrons, corralled by metal railings leading directly inside, were forced to enter the structure. Recessed into the floor, visitors walked around nearly twenty casts. The centerpiece: a family huddled together in fear. The parents and two children clung to each other, forever frozen awaiting their horrific fate. And, while most of the facial expressions of their contemporaries were muddled by the materials in which they have been preserved, if one looked closely enough, a few found their way through time. Their pain and fear are etched into eternity. Visitors could not tear themselves away, enthralled by the history of destruction set before them. 

Special exhibition centerpiece, Image Credit Jess Kamphuis.

The manner in which the deceased were arranged throughout the site raises a number of ethical questions. In the case of Pompeii, the very process of creating the casts provides archeologists with another clue into the life of Pompeii during 79 AD; yet, it must be examined in relation to the current international policies regarding the exhibition of human remains. 

According to The Guardian article from October 2010, entitled Museums avoid displaying human remains ‘out of respect,’” “Museums are increasingly getting cold feet about exhibiting human bodies and body parts - despite surveys showing the public is fascinated and quite untroubled by such displays.” This assertion is primarily rooted in the 2009 English Heritage survey, entitled “Research Into Issues Surrounding Human Remains,” which sought to gain a greater understanding of popular opinions. The article also contends that pagan groups, such as Pagans for Archaeology and Honouring the Ancient Deadare largely responsible for advocating the proper treatment of human remains. In response to such advocation, museums and institutions have been known to amend their exhibits as well as repatriate remains, in an attempt to satiate the cultural needs of the deceased. However, if taken to the extreme, it could ultimately hinder research and scientific study. As museums, both in the United States and the United Kingdom, continue to reevaluate their policies, the general public persists in their morbid fascination with the dead. 

The aforementioned survey seeks to understand the phenomena of our fascination with the dead. Of the 864 British citizens surveyed, ages eighteen and older, 91% of participants believe human remains should be displayed. The same 91% also agree that remains should be retained by museums for research purposes. However, these numbers begin to vary when the age of the remains is brought into question. Polling reveals participant approval decreases when the deceased can be “identified by name” or if their direct descendants are still living. Perhaps it is the age of the remains that dictates the current policies regarding their presentation to the public. This is further illustrated by the Museums Association’s page, “Ethical Debate: Human Remains.” While acknowledging that there is little published regarding visitor opinions, they draw from data that suggests visitors are comfortable with seeing properly preserved human remains. For, the Museum Association also confirms visitor comfort directly correlates to the age of the remains on display. The younger they are, the more likely one would have to grapple with the idea of living descendants as well as cultural traditions for burial and finding peace that have been overlooked.

Pompeii’s special exhibit, temporary pyramid, Image Credit: lablog

This trend towards restricting the exhibition of younger remains is particularly exemplified by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). According to the NMAI’s website, they believe “that the respectful treatment and disposition of human remains is a basic human right.” The institution is committed to returning all remains to “their lineal descendants, regardless of geography and sociopolitical borders.” At the same time, the British Museum’s July 2013 “Human Remains Policy” requires the museum to justify the retention of remains that have living relatives or hail from an existing cultural community. However, the British Museum policy also enumerates the “benefits of retaining human remains.” Through the study and display of the long dead, we are afforded a glimpse into how other societies interpreted death. We are offered the opportunity to compare their rituals to our own. Also, if the remains have been physically modified, they may provide context to other artifacts within the Collection.

Ultimately, human remains have the power to advance the understanding and study of past cultures, particularly when held by museums and other cultural institutions. However, at what price does man’s morbid fascination come? The entire civilization of Pompeii was destroyed by a volcanic eruption. There are no identifiable, direct descendants. No one is left to advocate that their cultural beliefs be upheld. Rather, their anonymous and collective pain is immortalized in the plaster casts molded from the holes in which they died. Does mere anonymity signify that we have less of a moral obligation to those whose names have been lost to time? If this is the case, then I hope my name lives long enough to prevent me from becoming just another set of bones encased in glass, laid bare for the world to see. 

Sources Cited:

British Museum. “British Museum Policy: Human Remains in the Collection.” Accessed January 31, 2016.

British Museum. “Human remains policy.” Accessed January 31, 2016.

English Heritage. “Research into Issues Surrounding Human Remains.” June 2009. Accessed January 30, 2016.

Honouring the Ancient Dead. Accessed February 1, 2016.

Kennedy, Maev. “Museums avoid displaying human remains ‘out of respect.’” The Guardian, October 25, 2010. Accessed January 30, 2016.

Museums Association. “Ethical Debate: Human Remains.” Accessed January 30, 2016.

Museums Association. “Human remains in museums.” Accessed January 30, 2016.

National Museum of the American Indian. “Repatriation.” Accessed January 29, 2016.

Pagans for Archaeology. Accessed January 30, 2016.