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The repatriation of human remains from Britain’s museums

The reunification of human remains held in museums with Aboriginal groups is a hot topic at the moment in Australia. The Human Tissue Act made the return of many such artefacts [1] possible, but there are still many who claim that such returns are removing a key source of scientific & anthropological study – to the detriment of the institutions that currently held the artefacts.

Listen to the original programme here [2].

ABC (Australia) [3]

Regarding human remains
12 August 2009
The collection and display of human remains and human body parts were once legitimate activities for the great universal museums. Rear Vision tracks the changes in attitudes towards such displays from outside the museum world as well as from within.


Man: We’re gathered here today to welcome our old people back home.

Reporter: The Naranjeri remains were stolen from 27 gravesites between 1898 and 1906 by the controversial Adelaide coroner, Dr William Ramsay Smith. He sold livers, hearts and skeletons on the open market, all in the name of research.

Keri Phillips: During the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, collectors, traders and amateur and professional scientists from the developed world amassed enormous collections from all over the globe. These collections often contained human remains, everything from tattooed human skin and skulls to the bones of lepers and other diseased body parts. Early on, but especially during the 20th century, many of these collections were bequeathed to museums but as time wore on and museums began to change from research institutions to places of public display, questions began to be raised both within and outside the museum community about the ethics and legality of the collection, retention and display of humans and human body parts. In recent decades, some museums have begun to repatriate their collection of human remains.

I’m Keri Phillips and today on Rear Vision, we’ll visit three museums in London to hear how this issue has polarised the museum world and challenged the very concept of the great universal museum.

In the forecourt of the British Museum, I met up with Dr Tiffany Jenkins, a British sociologist who’s writing a book on the subject.

Tiffany Jenkins: Well you can look at the 17th and 18th centuries as a starting point when many traders were going abroad often perhaps to Australia, and they would bring home objects of curious interest to museums in Britain, in this case. They were really collected then as just oddities. That changed quite significantly in the 19th century with the emergence of the scientific view of the body. This was a time when science is beginning to become quite authoritive in society and that changed the way human remains are seen. They were seen much more as an object. In the 18th century we also had human remains being collected as artefacts of vanishing races, so there was a growing concern as indigenous groups are beginning to kind of die out, and partly with the impact of Western civilisations on those peoples, and just general changes, you had the collecting of human remains from those people to kind of preserve them. In three centuries really we’ve seen quite a dramatic change to the way in which human remains are collected, and the context in which they’re understood.

Keri Phillips: So they started off being curios if you like, they were novelties.

Tiffany Jenkins: Odd things, like many of the Maori heads for example, the tattooed heads; they were just odd objects, and lots of objects in museums in that time were odd objects, there wasn’t a kind of coherent narrative to put them into, and that changed when we began to try and understand the world through objects and a kind of scientific rational principled outlook, which then changed how we saw those objects.

Keri Phillips: I left the British Museum and went to meet Simon Chaplin, Director of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons of England.

Simon Chaplin: We’re standing in the Crystal Gallery which contains about 3-1/2-thousand specimens from John Hunter’s collection. John Hunter was a surgeon and a teacher of surgery and anatomy working in London in the second half of the 18th century. We’re surrounded by the products of his research, his investigations, his teaching work, bits of human and animal bodies dissected and mounted in glass jars. These are the specimens that he used for training his students; he ran a private anatomy school in the back garden of his house in Leicester Square in the centre of London. And Hunter’s collection has been the foundation for the Hunterian Museum. After he died, it was given to the Company of Surgeons, now the Royal College of Surgeons, and they added to the collection over the course of the 19th century, and it gives us a wonderful insight into the ways in which people have used collections of human remains for research and teaching over the last two centuries.

Keri Phillips: Where did he get the parts from?

Simon Chaplin: Hunter got his bodies from all over the place. I mean in terms of the 18th century the thing that most readily springs to mind is body-snatching, resurrections and grave-robbing. And Hunter certainly worked with grave robbers, as did all of the other private anatomy teachers in London in the century, and there were plenty of other people alongside Hunter who were teaching anatomy, using corpses removed illicitly from common graves, or bought from workhouses or prisons or hospitals.

What’s interesting about John Hunter’s collection though is that it contains bits of other bodies, private patients. My favourite specimens are three showing the bladder of John Hunter’s vicar, the rectum of the Bishop of Durham and the thigh-bone of the Archbishop of Canterbury, all of whom were dissected by John Hunter. And we tend to forget that in the 18th century there was a thriving culture of conducting post-mortems on patients with their consent, or the consent of families and next of kin, to establish the cause of death. And Hunter was keeping parts of those bodies in his collection as well.

Keri Phillips: Despite the focus on research and teaching, the collection was always open to the public.

Simon Chaplin: So Hunter would invite people in. Every Saturday in May, he’d give a free guided tour of his museum, three Saturdays for gentlemen, one Saturday for ladies. And he’d take people around and show them his collection. So from the very start, the Hunterian Museum has always had a public function as well. And that continued throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was always a resource designed primarily for medical students or trainee surgeons, and it’s always been open to the public on some basis. Nowadays it’s open without restriction, so anyone can come in and have a look around.

Keri Phillips: Is it a popular museum?

Simon Chaplin: We have about 45,000 people a year coming through the Hunterian Museum, and most of them are members of the general public. A portion of them obviously are still medical students and medical professionals, but most of the visitors who come through are just people who are interested in learning more about the history of surgery, the history of anatomy, and seeing the specimens. And we have family groups, we have school groups coming through, so we don’t impose any restrictions on the kind of audience we get here. At the same time, however, we acknowledge not everyone will find the display of human animal remains to their taste.

Keri Phillips: So how do you manage that?

Simon Chaplin: We rely on people to be self-policing. People come here if they want to see what we have, we’re quite open about the material we have on show. We acknowledge it in our publicity material as you come into the museum, so it doesn’t come as a surprise to people to find human remains, and in that sense it’s different to a lot of other museums, where human remains form a very small part of their overall collection. And people can sometimes be surprised to come across a skeleton, a skull, a preserved specimen when they’re looking through a museum containing lots of other things. In our case, that’s what the museum is about.

Lisa O’Sullivan: We hold about 700 remains, and over 300 of those are actually French tattoos on human skin. Ours is a slightly unusual collection in terms of its diversity. We actually at the Science Museum look after what’s called the Wellcome Collection, which is owned by the Wellcome Trust, and were mostly collected by Henry Wellcome, the philanthropist and pharmaceutical entrepreneur of the late 19th century.

Keri Phillips: Dr Lisa O’Sullivan is the Senior Curator of Medicine at The Science Museum in London.

Lisa O’Sullivan: He had a lot of money and a team and a slight – well, a slight – an obsession. He came over from America to Britain and formed a pharmaceutical company called Burroughs Wellcome. He made vast amounts of money because he invented the tabloid, which is a compressed form of pill, so it actually meant that you could have far better calibrated dosages, and they were far easier to transport. He was this master marketer. So what he would do is every exploration that went out, every team whether it was Antarctic or in Africa, would always had the tabloid medicine chest, and then when they got back, they would write up glowing reports of how Wellcome’s medicines had helped them during their adventures. So he was an absolute brilliant entrepreneur. And a lot of the money that he made, he increasingly ploughed into this collection; he wanted to set up a museum of mankind. He believed you could tell the history of humanity through the ways that people protected themselves from harm.

He set up a museum, in fact, the Museum of Mankind at Euston Road in London. However his vision of who would use it is miles away from how we would see a museum today. He really believed that you could read history, and you could read people’s cultures, position on an evolutionary scale, from the kind of technologies they used. So for instance, you’ve got everything from a sharpened stick up to a contemporary lancet, and he would try and fit this on to some kind of scale.

However, he was very clear that this was a museum for scientific men, for learned men, so you had to make an appointment to go in and you had to have the proper credentials to actually go and look at this stuff, so the idea of the public coming in, the idea of easy access was completely not part of his vision.

Keri Phillips: After Wellcome’s death in 1936, his collection was dispersed. In 1976, the Wellcome Trust, set up to manage his legacy, transferred over 100,000 items to the Science Museum on permanent loan. Many of the most important objects are now permanently displayed in 40 rooms on two floors, devoted to medical history. In almost every case these displays incorporate human remains. At about the same time as the Science Museum was assimilating the Wellcome legacy, the winds of broader social change were beginning to blow through the rather musty corridors of the contemporary museum. Questions began to be asked about the human remains that many museums had inherited from the great collectors of the 18th and 19th centuries. During the 1970s, some indigenous groups began to demand the return of their ancestors’ remains. Lissant Bolton is in charge of the Pacific and Australian collections at the British Museum.

Lissant Bolton: Displaying human remains became an issue, yes, probably at the end of the ’70s. In Australia, it followed directly on from a landmark conference held in Adelaide by the Aboriginal Arts Board and Bob Edwards and a few other people, which was attended by a lot of museum curators. And that was the first time that Aboriginal people in Australia got to speak directly to museum curators. And out of that meeting, huge changes flowed in Australia, including the employment of Aboriginal people, Aboriginal people being on boards and trustees, the restriction on the display of or even research access to a secret sacred material and also human remains. And from that also flowed the return of human remains, Aboriginal human remains to communities in Australia. And that all happened in Australia through the ’80s really.

It’s become a kind of issue at sort of international indigenous peoples meetings, that on the whole human remains is a core issue for the subject peoples within what was formerly their own land, the people who are in colonial-settler contexts in Canada, in the US, in Hawaii, in New Zealand, in Australia. Whereas for example in Papua-New Guinea or Vanuatu or the Solomons, it’s not an issue, where people are living on their own land and always have lived on their own land. So the way in which human remains are treated is very much to do with a kind of deeply-felt sense of identity and disenfranchisement often.

Keri Phillips: Why were these human bodies, bones or whatever, collected in the first place?

Lissant Bolton: Well I think there’s several reasons. I think one needs to – applaud it or deplore it either way – you kind of need to understand a very different mindset at the time, which was that people were very much driven by kind of scientific and a desire to understand about humanity, about physical anthropology, about people in general. People also had a notion that we now deplore, justly so, that many of these populations would ‘die out’ and so they saw themselves as preserving a kind of physical remnant of a population; that’s often why things were collected.

Keri Phillips: Although it took a while for changes such as those in Australia to ripple through to the UK, Lisa O’Sullivan says that a significant shift occurred in 2000.

Lisa O’Sullivan: Well in 2000, there was an agreement between Tony Blair and John Howard that the remains of indigenous Australians, of which there were many, many thousands held in not just British but global museum collections, should be returned. And that was a political agreement between Australia and Britain. That meant that a working group was set up here to look at those issues. That has resulted in a report with the minority report attached. Not all museums agreed to all of its findings.

So it is still an area of some difference of opinion within the sector. Often it’s quite embarrassing for a museum that’s set up as a social history museum, that happens to have a 19th century skull, because that was seen as part of normal collecting practice at the time. So many museums have actually offered things back, however there are also collections which are still being actively used for research. So there’s a real range of issues going on, but the repatriation one is certainly a key prompt to thinking about these issues in more detail, and has really forced I think the sector as a whole to look at broader issues about the use of remains. And how audiences feel about them, though I think intriguingly the sector itself is now often more sensitive to questions of display and suitability, whereas audiences often quite like the ghoulish and the macabre, but we might not want to present remains in that context any more, but there is still an expectation that for instance, Egyptian remains are seen very much as part of something you will see in most museums, and that’s not seen as problematic at all, as far as research has shown so far.

Keri Phillips: This is Rear Vision on ABC Radio National. I’m Keri Phillips. Today we’re looking at the collection and display of human remains in museums, especially those in Britain, and how attitudes have changed both within and outside the museum community.

We’ll come back to the Palmer Report shortly, because in British museums during the late ’90s, the issue had become broader than just the retention and display of indigenous remains.

Tiffany Jenkins: There was a scandal at Alder Hey, which is a hospital in Liverpool, that had retained without specific permission the body parts of children, dead children. This broke as a national scandal, it became a high profile political issue, and many activists associated the repatriation issue with the issue of Alder Hey, and it gave it a particular kind of potency; it became a really big issue.

After Alder Hey, in the late 1990s, there was an attempt to look at the rules and regulations over the holding and displaying of human remains, and there were a number of different attempts to censor human remains. And this is quite an interesting time, because you’ve also got during this period, the use by artists, Damien Hirst for example, a number of artists using human remains in their work, and that certainly wasn’t quite as ethically contested as those in museums. So it was a very difficult and interesting time during the late 1990s, early 2000, when people were trying to work out some kind of rule.

Keri Phillips: The issue was further inflamed by the controversy surrounding Gunther von Hagens’s Body Worlds exhibition.

Newsreader: The controversial Body World exhibition is opening its doors to the public in Manchester today. Viewers may find these pictures disturbing. Gunter von Hagens’s project features more than 200 body parts and dozens of bodies stripped of their skins. The exhibition has already attracted 25-million people worldwide, but critics say it’s morbid.

Woman: I thought it was very interesting. The human body is so fascinating and there’s so much in it that can go wrong, and for somebody to actually show you what’s in there I think is unbelievable.

Man: I think he was an absolute charlatan. He was a showman, and shouldn’t be allowed in this country.

Tiffany Jenkins: It had a very big effect. It was initially in the late 1990s, this is Gunther von Hagens, and he plastinates his bodies had puts them on display, and they’re quite unlike the ones you’d see in a hospital gallery for example, for medical students. They’re very clean, they’re quite colourful, they’re very posed and so there might be a chess player, or a basketball player, or a woman in childbirth, a woman with a baby. So they’re very personalised exhibits. They were tremendously popular and they still are, to some extent, and he has absolutely no trouble getting audiences, and it’s said to be the case that many people want to donate their bodies to him. He was also very controversial, and that was again, it kind of erupted at the same time as Alder Hey and a number of the parents who had lost their children, whose body parts had been kept, the parents of Alder Hey protested against the display of human remains by Gunter von Hagens. You can see why they might feel the way they did. And what that meant is that it became thought to be the case that people have a particular sensitivity about the display of human remains, because there are all these different controversies going on, and I think when you’ve got a climate where that kind of – there’s a sort of scandal, at the time as an unsure medical profession who were knocked by the scandal, and an unsure or rather museum profession is trying to change, they’re particularly sensitive to criticism, and so Gunter von Hagens is one of a number of different controversies over human remains that encouraged people in the profession to think that there’s something wrong here and we need to do something about it.

Keri Phillips: As a result of the scandals and controversies, the British government set up a Working Group on Human Remains under Professor Norman Palmer, whose task was to look at the legal status of human remains within the collections of publicly funded museums and galleries in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. You’ll find a link to its 2003 report on the Rear vision website. Its report ultimately opened the door to the legal repatriation of human remains.

Newsreader: Finally to Britain, and after five years of campaigning, Australian Aborigines have succeeded in convincing three British Museums to hand back Aboriginal remains for burial. Despite the co-operation of three institutions, the Natural History Museum which has the largest confirmed collection of 161 Aboriginal items, says the remains are of great scientific value and won’t be returned.

Keri Phillips: Lisa O’Sullivan’s Science Museum repatriated three skulls just last year, but she says that opinions are divided within the museum world.

Lisa O’Sullivan: There are still some museums who don’t feel it’s appropriate to return, for all kinds of reasons and I can’t really speak for them. However the arguments tend to resolve around the fact that as a generalisation these tend to be remains which are held in active collections which are being used by scientists for research, and the argument is that these have a great potential for humanity to be useful and teach us a lot on a universal level. So generally speaking, I would say there’s much of the controversy is less heightened than it was, that people have a far more nuanced understanding of why this is a big issue for governments and indigenous people. But there are still some museums who don’t feel that that’s an appropriate reason to give remains back.

Keri Phillips: Despite the lack of consensus within the museum community, the British government, moving beyond the issue of repatriation, set up a Human Tissue Authority to regulate the removal, storage, use and disposal of human bodies, organs and tissue, and to license museums that held and displayed human remains that were less than 100 years old. And the UK Department of Culture, Media and Sport, issued a set of principles called Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums. Together these now provide the legal and ethical framework for the display of human remains in museums like the Hunterian.

Simon Chaplin: The majority of museums don’t have modern human remains in their collections. Their collections tend to come from excavations – archaeological material. We have some of that, but we have this much larger collection of what people would recognise now specifically as medical specimens, medical human remains, things related directly to the teaching and practice of surgery, anatomy, biology. So we’re licensed under the Human Tissue Act to display human remains to the public, but at the same time there are things that we don’t show. We don’t show any of our modern collections, because they’d be acquired specifically for teaching and unless we have explicit consent from the patient or next of kin for public display, then we won’t show them to the public.

In terms of the historical material, the definitions of what can and can’t be done are much looser. We take the view that we try and abide by the spirit of the legislation, even for material not strictly covered by the law. And what we want to do is make sure that people see the collection in a way that is respectful and sympathetic and helps them understand the context to it. So we don’t encourage that kind of voyeurism, the kind of prurient spectatorship that you might get with some other anatomical shows.

Lissant Bolton: Most people in Australia assume that it’s not a good idea to display human remains. Nobody thinks twice and it’s very hard to grasp the fact that most people in this country never thought about it and don’t have any particular opinion, and certainly many of them have come here or will come here to the British Museum to look at the mummies. It’s not an issue here in anything like the same way that it is in Australia or in New Zealand, and it’s quite hard to understand that if you come from Australia, but in fact that’s the case. So this museum does display human remains, it displays prehistoric human remains and it does display South American human remains because the curator of the South American collections argues that this is not an issue among the communities from whom those remains come.

So it’s a very different environment really, and whereas in Australia certain things are taken as kind of read and assumed and one is thought a complete fascist if one thinks anything differently, it’s not like that here, and it’s a very different world.

I don’t think there’s any curator of anthropology collections in this country who would probably display Australian human remains or Maori human remains, so most people understand that there are human remains which are sensitive and which should not be displayed, but I don’t know of any museum in Britain that would not happily display a mummy if it had one.

Lisa O’Sullivan: Intriguingly I think part of the way the debate has shifted is an acknowledgement that remains are not objects, remains are actually somehow different from the objects that we normally display in museums, and that they are deserving of more respect. As I said, it’s always for us about the story you want to tell, and making sure that the use of the remains is appropriate to that story. Obviously we’re the Science Museum, we deal with biomedical research, there’s no way we would want to stop using remains in our displays, we think they’re really important. It’s just ensuring that we’re doing that in a way that is very transparent and very respectful, and for instance, on our website now if you don’t want to see remains, and there are people for all sorts of cultural and religious reasons who may not want to, you can know where they are in the museum, so you can know which galleries to avoid. So it’s a combination of being sensitive to source communities, to local communities and overarching good museum practice being of a really high ethical standard.

Tiffany Jenkins: What I think has happened is that you’ve got this introduction of uncertainty about how things should be done, with little idea of how things should be done. So even those that are arguing for sensitivity and greater respect, really don’t know what that means, and that means everybody’s kind of running around thinking How do we do this? We don’t know. And they’re open to criticism. I mean they’re vulnerable to criticism because it’s an issue that anybody could quite easily get hold of and have a go at them about and they would be very defensive, but they’re not quite sure then how display them, so you get some being covered, some being uncovered, some being put in the dark, some being put in the light. I went to a number of consultations on the Lindow Man display which has just recently closed at Manchester University Museum. He usually lives in the British Museum. And there was a consultation which was designed to involve people in a discussion about how to treat him with respect and there were a number of different ideas that were being put onto the table and they’re all completely contradictory, but they’re all done in the name of respect.

Keri Phillips: What were they?

Tiffany Jenkins: Well some people wanted to have a cushion in front of him so they could kneel. Some people wanted him to be elevated higher than you were so he was like on a pedestal. Others felt that was treating him like an object, and that he should be lower than you. Some felt that he should be displayed as if he was just recently found, with objects, which is actually more of a traditional archaeological display. Others felt that putting him with objects treated him like an object, and felt that he should have absolutely no objects next to him. Then there was a discussion about candles and maybe these people should be allowed to leave kind of objects or flowers, and then there was a discussion about what should happen to those, and it just went around and around and around. It was quite amusing really.

But what you have there really is that this – you have the body acting as a locator, so people can talk about anything really through him, and I’ll try and illustrate that with an example again from Lindow Man. There was a consultation about how he should be treated, and a number of people wanted to use him to talk about a number of different issues. So some people were saying multiculturalism, if we can understand Lindow Man we can understand our own society. Some people wanted to use Lindow Man to talk about the environment, because he was found in a peat bog and they felt that this would be a good way of raising the issue of how peat bogs are treated and how global warming might be a threat to them.

Others felt he could be a way of talking about terrorism. This was very much on the agenda, I think afterwards, it was a little bit of time after the bombings in London, and so many people were talking about how we could discuss terrorism in our museums and galleries, and so Lindow Man kind of became a focus for that. At no point were we really talking about Lindow Man, and what we knew about him, but we were all talking about how to treat him with respect and how he could be relevant to today.

Keri Phillips: Dr Tiffany Jenkins a British sociologist working on a book called Contesting Human Remains: Museums and the Crisis of Authority. My other guests were Simon Chaplin from the Hunterian Museum, Dr Lisa O’Sullivan from The Science Museum, and Lissant Bolton from the British Museum.

And I’ve put up quite of links on the Rear Vision web page for this program. You’ll be able to find out more about Lindow Man and there are links to all the collections I visited in London, so you can see the sorts of displays we were talking about and the online information about them.

Jenny Parsonage is the technical operator for Rear Vision today. I’m Keri Phillips.


Dr Lisa O’Sullivan
Senior Curator of Medicine,
The Science Museum,

Dr Tiffany Jenkins
British sociologist working on a book called Contesting Human Remains; Museums and the Crisis of Authority

Simon Chaplin
Director of Museums & Special Collections,
Royal College of Surgeons of England

Lissant Bolton
Section Head, Oceania
Oceanic (Pacific and Australian) collections
British Museum,

Keri Phillips

Keri Phillips