Last week I went to a museum. No great surprise there really. I go to a lot of museums, and perhaps surprisingly not always for the cafe and gift shop - although I'll admit to buying a book. Again. In many respects it was a museum much like any other county style museum. A mix of everything from geology and rock strata, to displays of medieval arms and armour, and Roman sculpture. It was well presented, with fascinating displays, a good level of available information and, it must be said, brilliantly attentive staff. Truly lovely people. To be honest, despite it being a county museum, in a major tourist city, it really wasn't very busy - which rather surprised me. Outside in the museum gardens hundreds of people were sunning themselves, eating ice-cream, and eying up the sporty types in lycra jogging around the perimeter. However, inside was brightly lit, but cool, and largely empty. I suppose that's why the two little kids moving just ahead of me caught my attention.
The kids were having a whale of a time, and if their parents were around I didn't see them. They were loving some of the displays, enjoying the gallery by gallery trails that had been developed for just their sort of inquisitive minds, pressing as many brightly lit buttons as was humanly possible, and getting a real kick out of the whole thing. Obviously there were bits that left them cold. Areas where they quickly moved on, past yet another Roman sculpture with a broken nose, where I paused and lost sight of them. However, eventually we'd meet up again, as they were delayed by something that caught their interest, or detained by a particularly entertaining quiz where, they had discovered, if you pressed ALL the buttons at once you could get the whole screen to freeze for at least a minute whilst it worked out what the hell was going on. And so we progressed together, shadowed discretely by a member of staff, clearly intent on keeping the kids in line of sight, and making sure I wasn't pilfering any additional noses from Roman sculptures. After all, they'd clearly lost enough already...
And so it was that I came across the two kids in the Roman archaeology gallery, squatting down beside a long glass case. As I got closer I could see that they were taking a great deal of interest, indeed taking turns, to put their heads down at the end of the case, so that they could stare up the entire length of it. In the case was a set of human remains - a skeleton - and the kids were taking it in turns to stare along the length of the bones. I wandered quietly over, wondering what it was they found quite so fascinating, only to hear one of them say - "if she was alive, you'd be looking right up her dress..."
Well, kids are kids, and I'm not one to judge. Indeed, it brought to mind a school trip I myself made to the British Museum somewhere back in the mists of time. Mostly I remember the train journey by modern diesel locomotive - a novelty for anyone brought up in Norfolk where 'historic' railways are the norm - and the early British gallery. Beyond the wonders of the Sutton Hoo treasure, and the shinning silver of the Mildenhall treasure, the most memorable display was of the bog body. I can't tell you exactly which bog body it was, not without looking it up, but it was fascinating. However, fascinating to a twelve year old may not be quite the same sort of fascination that an adult saw in it. From memory, most of my class, about thirty of us, spent a very great deal of time crouching by the glass case, drawn by the apparently irresistible urge to stare up the bog bodies bum-hole.
And here I was, many, many decades later, watching a couple of kids doing pretty much the same thing as I and my classmates had done, at a different museum, many years later. It must be a truly irresistible urge that, like nothing other than Dr Who, really does transcend time and space.
It was at this point that the member of the museum staff intervened. The kids were moved on - politely - and I did feel as though this was something that both sides were familiar with. A resigned sigh from the kids, and a rush towards the next quiz, information board, or dressing up stop. However, as I loitered, in an apparently obviously suspicious fashion, the staff member turned his attention on me. I got the full run down on the body that was before me. Not just the quick gloss of the interpretation labels, but the full and frank details. In short, the talk that he'd obviously tried to give the kids on more than one occasion, only to be met with the squeak of hastily retreating trainers on marble floors.
She was excavated nearby - or so I was informed. The remains of an apparently healthy (apart from the whole being 'dead' thing) young female who had passed away in her twenties. She dated to the Roman period, had a lovely collection of grave goods garnered from throughout the empire, and was probably north African in origin. She had, I was informed, most probably been born under dry African suns, before ending her short life in the glorious damp of Roman Yorkshire. A short, but undoubtedly eventful, life nearly two thousand years ago.
I was quick to thank the staff member for the time he'd taken to explain the display. He'd been very friendly, very informative, and clearly knew his exhibits in a great deal of depth. The knowledge he presented went well beyond the information contained on the display panels, and showed that he'd well and truly done his homework. Even better was the fact that he presented it in a manner that was both accessible and informative. However, I then made the GREAT MISTAKE. I happened to mention that I, as an archaeologist of sorts, actually had a few issues with the display of human remains in museums. I wasn't explicit - rather just highlighting the disquiet I felt when staring down at the dry conserved bones of this young woman. However, the change in attitude of the museum staff member was both instantaneous and undeniable. The warmth of the day dropped from the room. It became as cold within that gallery as it had been within the grave of the long dead African girl. "Oh", he said quietly, "you are one of the reburial brigade..."
Sadly, that really does define the limits of this particular argument at the moment. The side that argues that there is value in displaying human remains to the public, indeed making them the focus of supposedly educational and informative displays, seems to believe that if you don’t happen to agree with their view, to share it, then you must be one of the ‘reburial brigade’. That if you object to such displays, then you must be in favour of removing ALL human remains from public display and having them buried again – and, as they will undoubtedly tell anyone who cares to listen – lost forever to science.
The problem is – I’m not. I’m not in favour of the wholesale reburial of human remains currently kept in museum collections. Whilst I may believe that it is inappropriate to display many of them to the public, most particularly in the manner in which we currently do, I simply don’t believe that we should cast away the opportunities that such remains may present to science today – and more particularly to science in the future. Let’s be clear about this. Science today can and has learnt a massive amount about the past, past environments, and the people who populated that past, from human remains recovered by archaeologist and currently stored in museums. We have learnt about their lifestyles. We have learnt about their diets, the way and places in which they grew up, and how they eventually left this world. We have learnt what diseases they suffered from, who they were related to, and - if not the dreams that filled their minds - then at least the proteins and chemicals that made up the chemical balance of those minds.
That is really the main point here I suppose. Just because you object to the idea of displaying human remains to the public does not necessarily mean that you belong to the reburial brigade. Just the opposite in fact. You can actually find the display of human remains in a museum, with every kid able to stare up their bum-hole, actually distasteful without necessarily suggesting that we should immediately rebury every example of human remains currently held in every museum and archaeological store. It is possible. Trust me on this.
I suppose it is all down to the argument, and the terms in which it has been presented over the last decade or so. The middle ground has rather disappeared. You are either ‘for or against’. There is no box marked ‘hang on – lets think about this for a moment’. You either agree with the display of human remains in museums – or you are ‘one of them…’
The thing is, I think we need to change the points of reference here. We need to change the way in which this particular case is argued. We need to not just move the goalposts, but actually turn the whole field around. So here goes…
I am not in favour of the wholesale reburial of human remains currently in museums. I know that much can be learnt from them. No arguments from me there whatsoever. However, what justification can be possibly presented for those same human remains being on display, in a glass case, with every second kid staring up its bum-hole, like the star attraction in a Victorian freak show? And I do not use the ‘freak show’ comparison lightly. In an age of 3D printing and decent reconstructions, what can the visitor or viewer possibly learn from staring at the actual physical remains - the bones - of a long dead individual that they couldn’t get from a replica or reconstruction? Indeed, surely they’d learn more, and perhaps gain a deeper empathy and understanding, from viewing a facial reconstruction of an individual rather than just their dusty bones? Of being able to stare at the face that was born under African suns, rather than the bleached bones in the glass case.
So there really lies the challenge. And it's a challenge not aimed at the likes of me - the people who find such displays distasteful and morally questionable - but at those who believe they are justified and justifiable. For that is what you have to do. You need to justify to the world exactly why you believe anything educational, anything fundamentally useful, can be gained from putting the earthly remains of a dead person on display in a museum. You need to explain why it is necessary to showcase the bones of a dead child to the public, and explain exactly why the public will learn more from those bones than they would from a competent reconstruction or replica. It certainly isn't the old, often repeated, story of 'authenticity'. After all, many of our most famous museum exhibits in the UK are also occasionally replaced by replicas, and nobody is any the wiser, nobody takes away anything less from the experience - so why not the human remains? If you can't fully justify it, if there really isn't a valid educational reason (and I've yet to come across one), then we really must simply accept the 'freak show' tag. We are displaying dead human beings - dead people - to attract others to come and gawp at them. They may not be 'half fish - half man', they may not be quite the 'bearded lady', but the motivations of both those who come to stare, and those who put them on display, are largely the same.
Whoever those people were, from whatever age, and of whatever religion or system of belief, we can be pretty sure of one thing. It is a simple and single tangible point in the morass of history. They and their loved ones believed, no matter what (if any) afterlife they were destined for, that their earthly remains would rest in peace. They believed that their mortal remains were being interred or disposed of in a manner that would ensure they were left largely undisturbed. They may have stripped the flesh from those bones, they may have hollowed out mighty logs to place them in, they may have carefully bound them in unbleached lined - but they believed that it was, quite simply, forever. This was important to them. It meant something to them. They respected their dead. Respected them enough to go, in some cases, to great lengths to ensure they remained undisturbed. We should perhaps learn to respect them, their beliefs, and their clear wishes also. After all, in a couple of thousand years, do you really want a bunch of sniggering schoolboys staring up YOUR desiccated bum-hole?