I wrote this a while ago…
It was a thought which had never occurred to me before… before I took the archaeological course on-line from Brown University. A question was raised about viewing human remains in museums and whether it was right that skeletons or body parts should be displayed at all, even if it was done ‘tastefully’ and sensitively. I didn’t really have an opinion about it, but the more I thought about it the more I couldn’t decide what I did think. I am not religious in the conventional sense, and I don’t believe in an afterlife, and I really do not care what happens to my physical remains when I die… but… at the same time there is a big but. I wouldn’t care if any part of me was put on display for whatever reason (I can’t imagine what!) so why is it a thought-provoking problem when other people’s remains are displayed?
Is it something to do with permission? Is it something to do with respect? Is it something to do with a type of voyeurism – do I really want to see the death throes of a poor family caught in the events of the eruption of Vesuvius which destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum for example? I know that the contorted shapes are not actual bodies but merely casts made from the void created by their body encased in ash… but it is a record of their deaths, a witness to their agonies.
In the past it was usual for western museums to display all sorts of human remains, including humans themselves, stuffed, preserved, or reduced to skeletons to hang in a glass case. Shrunken heads and mummified limbs were on display (and in fact still are) Would the remains of people who died in a more modern catastrophe be on view for people to gawp at? Would we be comfortable and think it was ethical? What about fragments of bone from neolithic people? They were real living humans, should they be displayed?
I’m not sure what I think… but when I was at the exhibition of Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, I felt uncomfortable looking at the plaster casts, and particularly of a resin cast of a woman lying as she had died.