Who Owns the Bones? Should Bodies in Museum Exhibits be Returned Home?

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From Egyptian mummies to Ötzi the Iceman, human remains are a common, if macabre, feature of museum exhibits. Writing in Clinical Anatomy, Dr. Philippe Charlier explores the argument that curators have an ethical obligation to return these bodies to their native communities for burial.

The recent case of the ‘Irish Giant’ Charles Byrne reveals that this is not an issue limited to cadavers from pre-antiquity. Byrne found celebrity in the 1780s and while his skeleton remains in the Royal College of Surgeons in London, ethics experts argue his remains should be buried at sea in accordance with his wishes.

Dr. Charlier argues that human remains in museums and scientific institutions can be divided into four categories, ‘ethnographical elements’ such as hair samples with no certain identification; anatomical remains such as whole skeletons or skulls; archaeological remains; and more modern collections of skulls, used in now discredited studies in the early 20th century.

After exploring case study examples from around the world, Dr. Charlier argues that the concept of the body as property is anything but clear and depends heavily on local political views and the administrative status of the human remains. The author proposes that the only precise factor permitting restitution should be the name of the individual, as in the case of Charles Byrne.

“The ethical problem posed by the bones of this 18th century individual approximates to that of all human remains conserved in public collections, displayed in museums or other cultural institutions,” said Dr. Charlier. “In the near future, curators will have to choose between global conservation of all (or almost all) anthropological collections on the one hand and systematic restitution to their original communities or families on the other.”

Header Image : CC Wikepedia

Contributing Source : Wiley

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  • WhatsUPTonite

    I think I would be very upset if some future “scientist” dug up my bones, pokes around and played with them, then displayed them in some future setting. Seems very disrespectful to me and I just don’t buy the argument science is a beneficiary from such macabre behavior. Grave digging and robbing, not matter how many years you went to college, no matter how many Phds you have, no matter how many students you have working for you, and no matter the scientific “reason,” the practice is still grave robbing with all its attendant moral ambiguity. Leave me alone when I die!

  • AruvqanMyers

    Given that in many cases [especially with American Aboriginals] the bodies dug up 100 years ago have no relationship with the natives living where they were dug up thanks to migrations it is pretty silly IMHO to ‘repatriate’ the exhibits to nonrelatives based on who *now* lives where they had lived. [As a perfect example the current crop of indians in Eastern CT were not the same batch that lived in the exact same spot before us pasty white types invaded.] <and I have given up trying to follow what the damned current PC name is for any race religion or genetic grouping. Make up your damned minds people!>

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