I was reading this article (http://on.thestar.com/Wx2J6r) via The Toronto Star, about how the cadavers in the “Bodies Revealed” exhibit may be the corpses of executed Chinese inmates. It got me thinking about the larger question of displaying human remains in museums, and the controversy this raises.
This question was raised in my Museology class last term. Is it ethical or respectful to display human remains? Does context or time elapse matter? Multiple museums around the world have permanent displays of mummies from Ancient Egypt – does the reality that they lived thousand of years ago somehow change our perspective? The obvious issue that goes along with this is consent – while we may feel comfortable using those who willingly donated their bodies, how do we reconcile this desire with the reality that again, when looking at mummies, these were people whose consent was obviously not received, as they died so long ago. Is the difference that these people likely do not have living descendants who are likely to become upset?
As the Star article highlighted, it is not always clear where corpses and parts have been obtained from. This is a particular issue for groups who have been oppressed or had the ownership over their bodies stolen. And once these items are in museums, it can be a difficult process to have the remains returned to the proper owners. Repatriation can be a long and complicated process, particularly when some museums are unwilling to return their stolen treasures.
For me, this question boils down to respect and consent. But what about when these factors are missing? Does the public interest in these exhibits somehow make it okay? Or does the displaying of the human remains in any context greatly add to the history being interpreted?
I cannot help but wonder if this exposure of the “Bodies Revealed” exhibit will have any impact on visitor numbers and reception, or if will change the way even one person thinks about human remains.