What next for human remains collections at the World Museum?

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On Friday 17 May 2019, World Museum hosted two public debates on human remains in museums, as part of the LightNight Liverpool festival. The aim of these debates was to probe public opinion on the retention and display of human remains in museums through votes via smartphones, but also to engage the public in a convivial conversation on a very important topic for the museum: what next for human remains collections at the World Museum?

I was invited by the World Museum to moderate the debate, as part of my Medicine Galleries Research Fellowship at the Science Museum, which focuses on human remains in the 21st century museum. I am here sharing some thoughts on this very inspiring and thoughtful evening, and what this means for the future of engagements with human remains in museums.

The two debates consisted of an interdisciplinary panel of seven curators and academics: Emma Martin (Senior Curator of Ethnology), Alex Blakeborough (Assistant Curator of Ethnology), Ashley Cooke (Senior Curator of Antiquities), Chrissy Partheni (Curator of Classical Antiquities), Ben Jones (Finds Liaison Officer), Constantine Eliopoulos (Forensic Anthropology, Liverpool John Moores University) and myself.

The diversity of backgrounds and research interests of the panel illustrated both the diversity in collections at the World Museum, and the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to the complex question of human remains in museums. Each person on the panel introduced their work and their own stance on the question of the display and use of human remains in museums; the inclusion of forensic anthropology was all the more welcome, as Constantine was able to point out the benefits, and necessity, of working directly with human remains to understand the human body in forensics anthropology.

At the World Museum, human remains can be found in the antiquities and ethnographic collections, as well as in the natural history collections. In terms of display, the largest human remains collection on display is in the Ancient Egypt galleries, which has a dedicated mummy room.

The Mummy Room, ancient Egypt gallery, World Museum

The debates were attended by more than 60 people, an impressive number considering the variety of events offered during the festival; it clearly indicates public interest in the question of human remains in museums. Each debate started with two questions used as prompts, on which the audience was invited to vote: ‘should museums have human remains’ and ‘should museums display human remains’?

The debates were framed around the statement that National Museums Liverpool is working on redrafting their human remains policy to update it with more contemporary considerations, and that this event is therefore a public consultation. While I prepared for this event, I pondered over the theme of the festival, Rituals. There are many types of rituals that are enacted in a museum like the World Museum. I thought about the three main types of rituals that concern human remains collections:

1. The ritual of preservation (or lack thereof) which transforms the dead body, this being visually striking in the preservation of Egyptian mummies;

2. The ritual of collecting, which brings these objects to the museum, a series of actions and attitudes which remain largely unquestioned in museums with human remains collections, and yet are often embedded with colonial and racial practices;

3. The ritual of encounters in the museums, that brings visitors from around the world in contact with the bodies of people who lived in different time and spaces. It is the ritual of encounters with human remains that was the main focus of this evening’s conversation. How does one encounter human remains in museums? What emotions do these encounters provoke? Should these encounters be policed, developed, and should they be facilitated at all in a museum context?

Interesting questions were brought up both from the audience and the panel around colonial collections. How do you decolonize narratives? How do you care for collections that you disagree with? It was interesting to note that the public still separates ancient Egyptian collections from colonialism, although many UK collections of Egyptian material culture cannot be separated from colonial agendas and colonial loot.

The difference between different types of human remains was brought up as an area of discussion. Some moving examples were offered by the public, for example the presence of hair on display at the Jewish Museum in Berlin (hair remains an area of contention in some museums, as they are not always included in museum policies as human remains).

Another woman discussed foetal material in museum displays, and this was compared with the Body Worlds exhibition in London which has foetal remains on display. As I work within a medical collection, and I have just recently visited the Body Worlds exhibition, this was an interesting comparison, and illuminated the potential of museums to go beyond the spectacular, and to engage with the history of their collection in an ethical way.

Another point that was brought up a few times in the evening is the question of consent. What if the people to whom the bodies belong didn’t want to be in museums? The question of consent is one that is brought up regularly by the public in similar conversations, and it is an important one: it demonstrates the humanity of human remains, and ways in which the public relates to these collections very closely. Thinking about consent of human remains is thinking about one’s own body and one own’s mortality, which are topics seldom addressed in museum displays. It is a reminder that human remains collections are like no other, and in the sensitivity and complexity they bring to the museum world, they also offer an unparalleled avenue to engage with the public about topics such as illness, mortality, and emotions that few other museum collections can. It is a value that is often left unexplored.

Results from the poll taken during the second debate From the results of the votes, it was interesting, and perhaps surprising, to note that the public voted overwhelmingly in favour of the retention and display of human remains at the World Museum. The conversations were incredibly thoughtful and engaged throughout the evening, and emphasized a general interest and eagerness to be involved in these conversations.

The feedback from the evening was positive, with one person commenting ‘great to see Liverpool Museum involving the public in their future steps’, and another noting that it was a ‘brilliant way to engage communities with collections’. The conversations we shared on this night demonstrated the value, and necessity, of such public engagements.

These two debates were only the beginning of a conversation, and the World Museum is engaged with a wider programme of activities and engagements that form part of the #WMWhereNext project.