Tuesday 26 October 2010
There was a story in the Telegraph and the Guardian yesterday concerning the display of ancient human remains in museums. They report the findings of a new book by Dr Tiffany Jones that museums are removing or partially covering mummies, skeletons and other human remains for fear of protests by neo-pagan organisations, the chief among which seems to be Honouring the Ancient Dead (HAD), an advocacy group founded by Emma Restall Orr, a neo-druid, poet and author.
There is certainly considerable sensitivity over this issue, particularly when some of the remains in question were removed from traditional burial grounds without consultation, something that might be defined as anthropological imperialism, a corollary of political imperialism. Many of these artefacts have subsequently been returned to the rightful communities
But is it right to be equally concerned over remains such as mummies and bog bodies, where no cultural or tribal continuity can be established? The examination of such things is, after all, an essential part of archaeological research, helping to establish a better understanding of the past, of past lives and past cultures.
Speaking personally I approach this question from two dimensions. As a scholar and as a historian I have to welcome anything that throws a greater light on the past, which I love. As a pagan, as an admirer of the ancient ways and ancient customs, I believe that we have to approach human remains, the remains of our ancestors, with a high degree of sensitivity. How could I possibly celebrate Samhain (Halloween) and not feel a link with the spirits of the dead, no matter how ancient?
Sensitivity, that’s the key word, to show things always in context, not to display the dead, many of whom were buried with reverence, simply to be gawped at as objects of idle curiosity. After all, how would you feel if your own ancestors were taken from consecrated ground and put on public display? Ah, but time, the removal of time, excuses such things, does it not? Perhaps, then again, perhaps not.
Jenkins may have a point, though the story seems to me to be about undue sensitivity on the part of museum authorities. I can see no evidence at all that they are threatened with protests for displaying human remains. I’ve had a look at the HAD website. Here are the main points made on the issue of display;
2.1 A display should primarily seek to emphasise the remains’ personhood, i.e. not treat the remains as specimens, nor imply them to be objects, instead presenting the remains as individual human beings and subjects in their own right. Thus even where the remains are of scientific value, this should be expressed entirely within the context of the individual’s life.
2.2 As much information as possible about the human being should be expressed in any display, including what is known of their people, their way of life, and individual story. Where there are various possibilities, it is preferable to offer this information rather than to avoid giving any.
2.3 Displays should not remove human remains from the context of the landscapes within which they were thought to have lived and from which they were exhumed. Displays should provide such information, thus preserving the importance of a person’s connection with the environment. Where possible, this should be enhanced by an understanding of that landscape and its landowners and/or community in the present day.
2.4 Any goods disinterred with the human remains should be displayed with the remains. If this is genuinely not possible, quality replicas should be considered. Best practice would entail every item being referred to and explained, possibly with details as to where more information can be found.
2.5 Dignity should be restored to the individual where possible. For example, where a skeleton is found intact but with the skull not in its correct anatomical position the display should place the skull at the top of the spine, and not as found within the grave. In most instances it is not possible to know the reasons for the original burial configuration; however, restoring the remains to a normal configuration expresses respect for the individual as an ancestor, recognising their part within the human story. The position of bones within the grave can be presented with graphics in a display, or using photographs taken at the time of excavation.
2.6 Care should be taken with the use of nicknames for human remains. While using a name can ensure the remains are not perceived as specimens or objects, doing so can imply a level of familiarity that allows a lack of adequate respect. The giving of a nickname is often a part of the remains’ ongoing story and should be explained as such.
2.7 Remains from different individuals should not be muddled up. Where displays of human remains do contain more than one individual, this must be absolutely clear and justified by the individuals’ stories.
2.8 Best practice would entail the story of the excavation and exhumation of the individuals being told within the display, together with reasons as to why the remains were disinterred and retained, however briefly. The views of those who found the remains could also be included, further adding to the personal relationship between the ancestor and the present community or that contemporary to his or her exhumation.
2.9 Funerary urns should be displayed with explanations of their purpose, together with acknowledgement of the individual and where their remains may now be. They should not be displayed simply as pots.
2.10 Low lighting should be employed at all times on human remains. If this does not allow for detailed viewing, graphics or reproductions should be used to illustrate necessary points. This is as true for isolated bones as it is for skulls or entire skeletons.
2.11 Visitors should be warned that human remains are on display, before they approach them, so that they can make an active choice whether or not to view them.
2.12 Information about the eventual disposal of the remains should be considered as a respectful and valid part of the display, including whether any decision has been made about reburial, if this is under review or not currently under consideration. If the remains are to be retained within a collection, justification for this should be made clear.
2.13 If space does not allow for presentation of sufficient information immediately alongside the display, separate leaflets, information on websites or audio guides could be used.
2.14 Best practice would include providing seating near the display so that those who wish to are given the opportunity of sitting with the dead. In some cases, and in consultation with Pagan and local community groups, the opportunity to leave offerings could also be considered. This may be as simple as a box for monetary gifts with clarity as to which charity the offerings were to be given to; without adequate explanation, however, such a box is unlikely to be used.
By and large this seems perfectly reasonable to me, even if a little eccentric at points. There is no suggestion of any kind of extremism, or automatic protests if remains are displayed. It’s all a matter of context. Either Jenkins is being disingenuous – sensation sells books – or the museums authorities are being stupid. We can honour or ancient ancestors and understand them by making them part of our lives and study. There is no contradiction.