What did you feel the last time you saw human remains on display? Perhaps it was an organ in a jar, or a mummy in a case, human skin in a piece of art or even a graphic photograph. Maybe it was even someone you knew. How did you react?
Next Friday’s event at the Natural History Museum has caught my eye. I’m not being morbid as per usual – it is in fact a fascinating area of moral debate. One that I’ve been curious about ever since learning how the entire team excavating the ancient remains from under Christchurch in Spitalfields were signed off with post-traumatic stress – for months on end. I’d always assumed that sensitivity to death and destruction is in proportion to the remains’ age – that it wains like carbon. But it’s clearly not as simple as that. Debates rage on about repatriation of human remains and we have only recently returned a collection of what are clearly so much more than femurs and ribs to Australia – because they are of overwhelmingly emotional and spiritual significance to the indigenous recipients. The ethics of burial archaeology and ‘ownership’ are fascinating.
But having tried to demonstrate a certain sensitivity there I must confess, if I do get a hint of a catacomb I will be down there faster than a ferret down a hole. Perhaps I am a neo-goth. But then plenty of people are – exhibitions at the Wellcome Collection heave every weekend, particularly Exquisite Bodies a couple of years ago. And what insight did we all come away with? That medieval Londoners drank beer because it was safer than water, got into regular fights because they were perma-half-cut and walked away with many broken bones. What’s our excuse today kids??
So head down to the NHM next Friday to better understand whether human remains can become symbols or property, if it matters if human remains are displayed for science or art and if it matters if the remains are of someone who died recently or 1000s of years ago. On a last note – can you imagine a childhood without Pete Marsh – the ‘body in the bog’ at the British Museum. Perish the thought.
More information, Friday 25th May, 19:00 – 21:00 Tickets £12, Members £10