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Is the Display Case the New Sarcophagus? A Look into the Display of Human Remains in Museums

Written by Jess Burchett

Every time I  walk into a museum I have to brace myself, in case there is no warning before I turn a corner and stumble upon a human skeleton. I remember looking at a decorative mask in the British Museum and upon glancing at the plaque beside it, I realised what I was looking at was a person: somebody’s skull had been repurposed as part of their funerary ritual. It was jarring, to say the least. In a commonly closed-casket anglo-society, the sight of human remains is not one I often come across.

Not everybody reacts the same way, some hold a morbid curiosity, with differing levels of association to the long-gone human beings displayed before them. Whilst a collection of bones can be a shocking reminder of our own mortality, many feel the display of people is a privileged reminder and a way of honouring their existence in the modern day. Ancient Egyptian human remains are prolific amongst English museums, with displays of varying sizes found across the country. But do we have any rights to these remains?

England has no strong links to ancient Egypt, so the question as to why they are here must be asked? Whilst the acquisition of mummies and their associated material culture has roots in the colonial British Empire, their retention in England is mainly a conservation issue. Mummies are now securely locked away and carefully preserved and are going to survive longer here than if they were returned to pyramids practically open to tomb raiders: they are ‘safe’ here. And yet, is that enough reason to keep them? If their fate in their country of origin was to disappear into ruin, is it our place to interfere? With a modern catalogue of information and replicas available, is it necessary to keep originals anymore?

One must also consider the rights of the dead. When pyramids were built and pharaohs carefully mummified the ancient Egyptians did not do this with the intention of their deceased ending up behind a glass case. Their funerary rituals revolved around the deceased journey into the afterlife. For an ancient Egyptian to survive in the afterlife they needed their name to survive and their earthly body to remain intact so if anything, their preservation in museums may aid these cultural requirements. The location of the body was never seen as the issue. So perhaps displaying mummies in museums is a good thing. But, would the ancient Egyptians have approved of this? After all, they did go to great lengths to hide the bodies away in tombs.

Let us also consider other cultures to answer these questions. Ancient Egypt is no longer a living culture, at least not in the same way that it was 3000 years ago. We will never know what they think about our treatment of their dead. Considering English culture, how often do we see the remains of our medieval ancestors on display? How about human remains focussing on WWII? Are these remains too close to home to put on display? Does the age of these remains have an impact on the rights and respect we give them? If your great grandfather was put on display in a glass case, would you feel that the museum was disrespecting him? 

In a survey carried out by Historic England, half of the respondents agreed that museums should be allowed to display human remains, regardless of how old the bones were. In that case, your great grandfather being on display is perfectly acceptable.

Other cultures beyond our English shores, like that of Hawaii, want their dead repatriated. Hawaiian funerary rites centre around privacy and secrecy, and the public display of their dead (especially in a foreign country) is undoubtedly offensive to their living culture. Should we give them back? We could learn so much from the research we do on these bones. But when people want their ancestors back so they can respect them properly? I would argue it is not our right to interfere for the sake of anthropological research.

Whether it is ancient Egyptian mummies, the bones of prehistoric people or a repurposed skull mask, many would argue that as long as the display is respectful and done with educational intent, the display of human remains is acceptable. Another requirement many agree with is that the viewing of these displays must be optional and well-labelled. I agree with this last point thoroughly, as I will, for the sake of my mortal composure, avoid human remains wherever I can.

Written by Jess Burchett