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Over my dead body

Human remains in museum and academic institution

Text & Image: Islay Kilgannon


In 1973, the mummified body of Pharaoh Ramses II was issued a passport in order to be flown to France for restoration work. Despite his death over three thousand years prior, the mummification process preserved not only Ramses II’s body, but his status and ability to be assigned a national identity. A Pharaoh may be treated as a V.I.P. passenger, but what about the thousands of other human bodies displayed in museums?


From human zoos to fetuses in jars, human bodies have been made objects of scientific and cultural examination for centuries. In the field of anthropology and other social sciences, the study of living human beings was largely rejected after the Victorian and colonial eras for its overtly unethical and exploitative nature. However, academic institutions are shaped by, and continue to uphold, many of the same power imbalances. While efforts have been made to decolonize academic studies and recognize the atrocities they once helped perpetrate, the treatment of human artifacts remains a contested matter. Ultimately, we must ask: who does a body belong to after death?


My body, my government’s choice?

Museums and academic institutions are a product of the historical context and the world that surrounds them. Thus, the treatment of human bodies within these institutions is the result of various national, cultural, and personal interests.

Unlike the majority of bodies, that of 19th century philosopher Jeremy Benthem is showcased at University College London upon request. Bentham's body was preserved, clothed, and displayed according to the directions left in his will. The auto-icon is even rumoured to sit in on college council meetings and take part in voting. However bizarre these rumours may be, they present a notable contrast to the unnamed remains displayed in other academic institutions. Such as, the over 5,700 ‘culturally unidentifiable’ remains in the possession of UC Berkeley's Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology. The remains are linked to various native Californian tribes, many of which are unrecognized by the United States federal government. This lack of legal recognition is due to the founder of the university’s anthropology department, who deemed these tribes ‘culturally extinct’. As a consequence, the university is able to keep the remains, since the legally unrecognized tribes cannot provide evidence of their cultural connection to the remains in the eyes of the federal government. Through the unequal valuation of white, European and indigenous bodies, it is evident that historical processes and power relations determine who is awarded and denied personal autonomy.

One of the greatest influences over human remains is the national government. While governments assert authority over bodies to deny aspects of history, they also use them to actively shape other parts of the nation’s image. In the summer of 2021, Pharaoh Ramses II once again made a journey, this time through Cairo as part of a mummy parade. The parade celebrated the opening of the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization, but was cited in news articles as a way to encourage tourism. This exhibition was criticized by some Egyptian scholars for diminishing religious practices, while simultaneously encouraged by the government. Where cultural and state interests collide, what role do museums play in the presentation of human bodies?


Return policy for stolen goods

One of the world’s most highly contested displays of human remains and cultural artifacts is the collection of the British Museum. The museum plays host to one of the world’s largest displays of human history and culture, many of which come from the time of the British Empire. Historical context and the stolen nature of much of the collection thus make it a subject of controversy.

The museum’s official human remains policy explains how claims for repatriation are evaluated. In the context of museums, repatriation is defined as the return of artifacts, including human remains, to their place of origin. In order for a human artifact to be returned, it must pass the ‘public benefit test’. Therefore, the museum’s board of trustees must determine that the genealogical links of the community of origin have greater value than the artifact’s ‘public benefit to the world community’. The wording of the policy raises a host of questions as to how vague concepts such ‘public benefit’ are defined, and who exactly this public encompasses.

The policy also refers to the need for evidence of ‘Cultural Continuity’ and ‘Cultural Importance’, meaning that claimants must prove that the remains have religious or customary value to their community. Each of these valuations of human artifacts are made by a board of trustees with no connection to the artifacts or the communities they come from. Such decisions made on behalf of the ‘world community’ the artifacts supposedly serve is wholly reflective of the museum’s roots in colonialism.

In addition to arbitrary definitions of cultural value, the trustees’ ultimate goal is ‘to safeguard the museum's collection for the benefit of present and future generations’. Implied in the statement is that the museum does not seek to benefit present and future generations of indigenous or formerly colonized communities and, simply put, will not willingly repatriate its artifacts. By failing to consider the voices and demands of indigenous populations, the British Museum actively constructs and supports the narrative of imperial dominance.


Decolonization, baby!

A case of successful repatriation is that of the Museum Vrolik in Amsterdam. In 2019, the museum returned a collection of bones to the Moriori, the native people of the ​​Chatham Islands, and a tattooed head to the Maori, who are native to New Zealand. The returned bones were reburied and the head is now displayed at Te Papa, New Zealand’s national museum. The goal of these processes is not only to return bodies to their rightful communities, but to enact proper burial practices that have been disrupted. Successful repatriation thus allows for the recontextualization of bodies and accountability on the part of institutions.

In response to the movement towards decolonization in academia and acknowledgement of the impact of colonial history on indigenous populations, the British Museum has instituted educational programs to inform visitors about the history and origin of its artifacts. While these efforts recognize the history of museums and the treatment of human remains, the question of ethicality may never be resolved. As long as bodies are in the possession of institutions, do displays of human remains serve solely as symbols of power imbalances and support for the dominant narrative of history? What kind of public benefit do human remains provide once we know their origins? In the ongoing process of decolonization, displays of human bodies encourage critical questions about pursuing cultural knowledge without reproducing violence and inequality.


Whether it be state authorized passports for mummies or bones as tools of the British Empire, the governance of human remains shows the multitude of ways bodies remain exploited, politicized, and vessels of symbolic power. Even in death.





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