Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The last taboo?

So: Is it okay to put human remains on display in a museum? Based on the number of mummies, skeletons, and burial artifacts we've seen on display, the answer among most curators seems to be a definitive yes. I'm not sure if this is even a debate in the museum community. Museologists – comments?

Surely there are many good and pragmatic reasons for studying remains, even displaying them for the public to see. But does that mean that we should do it? I've only recently started thinking about this, but I have doubts.

There are all kinds of taboos surrounding death, particularly in my own culture, so maybe this is just another and I am desperately clinging to it. But still I can't help thinking that's just the point. Especially among ancient cultures, we can't know what taboos existed, what the wishes of the deceased might have been, what beliefs they may have had. Who are we to trample over these things?

Some suggest that the scientific value of studying and displaying cultural remains is so great that when there is no one left to advocate on behalf of them, to represent their wishes, religious beliefs, etc., that we have the right, maybe even the responsibility, to study and understand them, then communicate findings and make the artifacts accessible to the public. Though I clearly see the point, the utter pragmatism of this argument disturbs me.

Such arguments are easily made about remote ancient peoples – but what about the recently dead cultures and people who have no advocates because they have been oppressed and overpowered? Who gives voice to the conquered? Have we come to a consensus that they deserve nothing? Or that our scientific need trumps any sort of individual wish? I'm not sure we've stopped to consider it.

The Body Worlds exhibit is a perfect case in point. Does it matter if the consent given by the subjects was highly questionable? Do these people stop having rights when their bodies die? If one were someone I loved, I would think these things would matter a great deal to me, as it would likely to most of us. So why is our concern not generalized? Maybe death is just not very real unless it is close to us.

Or maybe I am just simple and sentimental and have been in too many museums lately.


oijoyphoto - the husband said...

don't tell that to the gravediggers at burr oak cemetery! i'm sure they have very staunch opinions on the matter.

Swiss Ms. said...

What a horrible story! Our inhumanity scares me.