POLL: Should human remains be displayed in museums?

What do you think?

Please do comment and reveal the reasons behind your decision as these will be followed up in a future post. 


30 comments on “POLL: Should human remains be displayed in museums?

  1. Absolutely! As long as it’s done with respect.

    One of my most formative experiences as far as my love of Egyptology and archaeology goes was a visit to the Manchester Museum when I was about 12. My mum took me to see the Lindow Man exhibition, and seeing the body itself was the best part of the day for me.

    I remember just staring and staring at him, thinking how wonderful it was to actually be able to look into the face of someone from that long ago – it really helped me identify with his story.

    I also felt the same as we wandered around the Egyptian gallery, the same day – seeing a mummy where part of it was exposed through the bandages was just fascinating for me.

    As long as people know there’s going to be remains displayed, and it’s done in a way that visitors can choose not to see them (e.g. not putting them right in front of the gallery entrance!), then I don’t really see the problem.

    • Very good points!

      What about the rights of the deceased, Julia? Do you think it’s respectful to them to display their body in a museum?

      I’m not saying it is right or wrong – I’m just trying to get a debate going 🙂

      • Speaking from an Egyptological perspective, why not? (I can’t really comment on other cultures and their beliefs though.)

        For an ancient Egyptian to survive in the afterlife, they needed a) their name to survive (surely having their name printed on museum labels, websites etc can only help this cause!) and b) their earthly body to remain intact. Well, a museum wants to maintain the survival of said body!

        I don’t recall anything that says that the body must remain hidden from view…just that it needs to survive.

        However, I don’t particularly condone unwrapping any more mummies, due to the damage it can cause, and the excellent technology we now have to be able to see through the bandages to what’s inside.

        And as I said, the display should be done with dignity and respect, and visitors encouraged to view them as such.

      • I agree about the endurance of the name and body – that has always been my reason FOR displaying mummies. However, I have to question whether the ancient Egyptians would have approved? After all, they went to great lengths to shut the bodies away in tombs.

        What do other people think?

  2. I’m unsure. As a punter with an interest in ancient Egpyt, locking them away means I’d never see them, not being a researcher with authority.

    But as an unofficial student of ancient Egyptian religion, taking them away from the tombs seems horrible, away from their goods and spells, but it does mean they’ll survive.

    So I’m unsure.

  3. But shutting them away in tombs, surely, was to enable the survival of the body – protect it from scavengers, robbers (though, as history has shown, that didn’t work!) and decay…it wasn’t to ‘hide’ the bodies from view, in some kind of ‘don’t look at me!’ way 🙂

    • Good points again.

      What about the notion of the ba returning to the tomb and the body each night? Do you think that the removal of mummies from their tombs interferes with this process?

      • Hmmmm…good thought! Did the ba need to come to the tomb specifically, or would it just know where the body was. I’m not at home, so I can’t consult my books!

        Mind you, the Late Period priests cared enough to move all those royal mummies into caches, so maybe the physical location of the mummy wasn’t so important.

      • I was literally just thinking that about the mummy caches! 🙂

  4. Like you Julia,I also gazed upon the face of Lindow Man in the Manchester Museum and became fascinated in how well he was preserved.He looked quite peaceful even though he had had a nasty death. I feel he is now at peace. So yes I am all for their display as long as they have the respect they deserve.

  5. The mummies survive better in the museums. Perhaps the stuff that was with them in the tombs can be sorted and distributed to the museums that have the mummy?

    • That’s an interesting idea, Joan. It would certainly be nice to see the whole ‘tomb collection’ together.

      • Silly thought! Tutankhamun has his grave-goods in the Cairo museum. However, there’s also the Tutankhamun Exhibition in Dorchester, which has a faithful reconstruction of his tomb and many of the goods (and when I say ‘faithful’, they really are – they’ve used original materials AND original techniques, with exact measurements etc, to reproduce these items).

        When Tutankhamun’s ba wants to ‘come home’ each day, do you think it gets confused and sometimes ends up in Dorset by accident…? 😉

      • Interesting thought, Julia! 😉

  6. If the Ba cannot get to the mummy it can rest in the hieroglyph of the deceased’s name so really Tut’s Ba has a wide choice of where to rest! Lol 🙂

    The Tut exhibition in Dorset was one of the things that first interested me in Egyptian history! I’d done some at junior school & loved it so my parents took me to see it. I’ll never forget seeing those &wonderful things”.

    What do people think about the recent trend to not display Human remains? Many have been withdrawn including Manchesters ‘2 brothers’ & I’ve heard (from a noted Egyptologist) that many items at the Petrie museum have also been withdrawn from display. Its apparently to do with the NHS’ stolen tissue scandal from a few years ago.

  7. The ancient Egyptians would be happy that we see their preserved remains and speak their name – so that they live forever.

  8. Regarding your concern about the Ba I believe that a statue of the deceased, can work as good as the mummy itself. Responding to the Poll I can only say that Cairo Museum will be uncomplete without the Royal Mummies hall where you find yourself face to face with those incredible people that made history. It is a chance to admire them as well as their legacy.

  9. So long as it’s done in a way that isn’t offensive to surviving members of the culture, I think it’s fine. Native American and Hawaiian remains are a problem, because it’s terribly offensive to those cultures, who worship their ancestors and feel very strongly about secrecy, and about which remains and objects should be allowed to be seen by which people, in which situations. This is all the more complicated given the historical context of colonialism and Orientalism and all of that. Native peoples as “natural history” and all of that.

    But, ancient Egyptians? I don’t think there are any Muslim Arabs today who revere the pharaohs as their direct ancestors in that way. The culture is completely different.

  10. I’ve said yes to the vote, however I do think there should be certain ‘conditions’ involved.
    The remains should be local and native to the Country displaying them, I think it’s fine to show replicas if say its an Egyptian mummy in England. The originals should be returned.
    All remains regardless of age, sex, creed should be treated with the utmost respect following recommended guidelines, in England these are supplied by EH, IfA, BABAO and Church of England. Afterall they were once living people and it’s only due to the age of the remains that they are treated differently e.g. A WW2 grave will be treated differently to say a medieval one as the former may still have living relatives. There maybe no traceable living relatives to ‘speak for’ the treatment of the medieval individual, hence the guidelines.
    The display should be tasteful/respectful and not just for gawping at. The exhibit has to have a purpose e.g explaining diet/lifestyle
    during that time period.
    The remains shouldnt be on display for ever, in some cases I think there are times for reburial…

    That’s just the start of my views and I’m an osteoarchaeologist who works with human remains in the museum sector

  11. I think the question needs clarified, this is obviously a blog which focuses on Egyptology but the question is less clear.

    For example ‘Should ancient Egyptian mummified remains be displayed in a museum?’ is a very different question to ‘Should the unidentified human remains of the victims of 9/11 be displayed in a museum?’.

    Context is everything.

    • The question is clarified already – it refers to ALL human remains. Yes, this blog focuses on ancient Egypt but the question is about human remains in museums in general.

      It is for commenters to decide how specific they want to be – the question is designed to be non-specific.

    • Agreed. Because this is an Egyptology blog, the respondents have all been discussing ancient Egyptian remains. But do we ever see human remains in renaissance exhibits? Ones focussing on ww2? I cannot think of any other culture where the exhibits focus on showing human remains the way ancient Egyptian ones do. You don’t see remains of Assyrians, nor English… I don’t really see what is actually learned by viewing human remains. Most viewers, if you watch their expressions, are titillated (Montserrat wrote a brilliant article on this). Wooops! I’ll stop now! Lol! So, I answered no.

      • Okay, so if we take away the focus from Egypt for a second, what do people think about the displaying of the so-called ‘bog bodies’, such as the Lindow Man at the British Museum? Or shrunken heads etc. like at the Pitt Rivers Museum?

      • Shrunken heads were meant for display, I think. The bog bodies are extremely informative as to practices in earlier times. All we need is a Channel 4 TV type warning that ‘This Museum contains displays of human remains which some may find offensive’, and ‘job done’.

      • Everybody seems very focused on the potential offence caused to visitors by the displays, but what do people think about the rights of the deceased?

  12. I think human remains belong to museums and science when they have been found in archaeological digs (mummies, prehistoric skeletons…): they have had their burials according to their beliefs a long time ago, now they can live again in the historical memory. But I think museums should not expose a lot of human remains at the same time so as not to shock sensitive people.

  13. I visited the London Bodies exhibition at the Museum of London when I was ill with extremely active rheumatoid arthritis and waiting for a hip replacement. Seeing the bones of some of the earliest Londoners known to have had the disease made an instant connection across the centuries. I could see the physical evidence of the pain they’d endured, and from my own experience understand something more of their lives. It instantly made me decide that I want my remains to be buried, not cremated, so that, just possibly, many decades hence someone might find them and have their imagination fired by the state of my bones and their surgical interventions.

  14. Yes. Appeals to emotion and tradition are not logically valid arguments. There is much to learn from the dead, so they should be available to all.
    Also, the dead don’t care.

  15. Interesting discussion – you might be interested in the results of a similar survey carried out by English Heritage http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/professional/advice/advice-by-topic/heritage-science/archaeological-science/avebury-reburial-results/?utm_source=aveburyremains&utm_medium=redirect&utm_campaign=redirect

    Also the work and book by Tiffany Jenkins about cultural authority and the display of human remains in museums makes interesting reading!

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