This week’s blog was written by a student on work experience at Buxton Museum. Darcy is in her third year studying History at the University of Lincoln but grew up in Buxton. She wrote her dissertation on the subject of human remains in museums and was able to provide us with her expertise on this controversial subject:

Our relationship with viewing human remains on display in the modern museum remains a turbulent and divisive one. The controversy surrounding these exhibits has highlighted the ethical argument over how remains should be displayed, and whether they even should be. Modern museums are still struggling with the fine balance between education and entertainment, whilst trying to frame their exhibits in a manner which doesn’t compromise culture, respect and dignity towards the remains.

Most modern museums are formed from private collections, like the establishment of the British Museum in 1753 from the collection of Sir Hans Sloane. With the growth of the museum due to donations, human remains were added along with the popularly collected Ancient Egyptian mummies during the ‘Egyptomania’ phase of the nineteenth century. Currently, the British Museum holds over 6000 human remains from all over the world dating back as recently to the early twentieth-century, to as far back as prehistory.

Due to the huge time difference in the range of human remains, the Human Tissue Act of 2004 introduced new guidelines of how to display human remains and dictated that remains can only be displayed without the permission of kin if they are over 100 years old. For context, 100 years ago marked end of the First World War, which is easily in close memory of the older generation’s parents and grandparents.

Buxton Museum currently has around fifteen examples of human remains on display. The displays include a complete skeleton, skulls, jaw bones, teeth embedded in a portion of cave floor taken from the famous Poole’s Cavern, cremated remains in a Bronze Age urn, and even a fake ‘mermaid’ with real human hair. The age of the remains can be dated from anywhere between 6,000 – 2,000 years ago due to the high level of prehistoric and Roman activity in the area. The only ‘modern’ exception is the ‘Mummified Mermaid’ who is a forgery estimated to be from the Victorian era.

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Because of the thousand years which stand between the remains and visitors in the museums up and down the country, the separation in time removes a lot of the humanity and empathy when viewing the displays. Even during the height of ‘Egyptomania’, there was still the separation of thousands of years between the ancient mummies and the Victorian public. But how and where do we draw the separation in time between us and the remains for them to be considered ‘objects’ and not ‘ancestors’? This is still unclear as shown by the Human Tissue Act and opens up new debates on whether 100 years is really long enough to justify the display of remains without the permission of any living relatives.

However, museums are experimenting with ways that present the remains as more than just objects. Labelling and information cards are important to the narrative of the remains, but it is still easy to remain disconnected from this. Instead, technology in the museum space can be utilised to engage more intimately with the remains on a human level to aid in visitor interaction and also in provoking more empathy than before. Digital facial reconstruction has been used on two of the skeletons in Buxton museum from excavations at the local sites of the Iron Age mass grave at Fin Cop and the Neolithic burial at Liff’s Low.

3D printing further aids in the acceptability of viewing human remains. For example, a 3D print of the Fin Cop skull was made to be exhibited in Buxton Museum, as the full skeleton had been found, and to separate and display only the skull would have been inappropriate. Electronic tablets are also stationed around the museum to give visitors the ability to find out more about certain exhibits in depth and seeing them closer than just in the glass case. The tablets in Buxton Museum also provide the visitors with videos of how the digital reconstructions on the skulls were done, and in the case of the Fin Cop skull, an image of the real skull is shown without the need for it to be separated from the rest of the remains purely for the purposes of display.

So whilst the words and the facts of traditional museum information cards help to pull the visitor in, they can feel like too clinical a way of presenting something so controversial. This is why technological advancements like digital facial reconstruction provide a respectful way of initiating empathy and re-humanising the remains to keep them from becoming just ‘exhibits’. Not only does it give a more familiar face for visitors to relate to, but it also helps in closing the thousands of year’s gap in time and space which divides the modern museum goer from the human remains.