Tonight I will give a winter lecture at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. I am going to be talking about my book, Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections. It is great to be talking at this particular museum as they recently were involved in a re-display of human remains, which I detail below, and because it gives me the opportunity to engage different audiences on these issues.
The Egypt gallery at Bristol City Museum & Art Gallery has changed their display of Egyptian human remains. Instead of the previous display of mummies in open coffins, it now exhibits the mummies with the lids half closed, which it considers more respectful.
Elsewhere, on display is the skeleton of a young man who lived around 3,400 years ago. He was found with three or four other young males in a V-shaped linear ditch covered by large limestone slabs and seems to have been thrown in without ceremony. This skeleton has a spear tip embedded in his pelvis and spine and evidence of what was probably a fatal blow to his skull.
The museum explains that after some consideration, they chose to display this skeleton because he is a rare survival. He is displayed in his own custom-built case surrounded by interpretation. Visitors to the gallery cannot see the human remains unless they choose to look and are warned that the case contains human remains.The interpretation aims to present the archaeological information as well as discuss the ethics of displaying human remains. A voting interactive asks visitors for their opinion on the display of human remains.
Significantly, this cautionary approach is taking place without any public demand for it. The public expects to see human remains on display. And yet professionals are increasingly uncomfortable about their display and are continually questioning it, such as covering the bodies up or erecting warning signs around them. Below is such a sign from Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.