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Posts tagged ‘ethics’

Some responses to War at the speed of light …

James Bridle, Dronestagram, 2012

A couple of recent interesting blog posts have picked up on my War at the Speed of Light: artists and drone warfare post a few weeks ago, which reviewed Omer Fast and Trevor Paglen’s works at the Brighton Photo Biennial.

Geographer Dr Alan Ingram, in his post Making geopolitics creepy and cool with art, fascinatingly analyses the use of particular words in the comments books at Fast and Paglen’s exhibitions: ‘stunning’, ‘cool’, ‘creepy’, ‘ugh’, ‘*shudders*, ‘oh no…’, ‘weird’, ‘wow’, ‘huh?’, by way of François Debrix, JJ Charlesworth, and neuropolitics (more please, Alan, this is a fantastic subject!). Ingram’s excellent blog Art and War is part of an academic research project exploring the responses of artists and art institutions in the UK to the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq,

Meanwhile, Honor Harger’s Drone’s Eye View: a Look at How Artists Are Revealing the Killing Fields, whose venue Lighthouse in Brighton hosted the Paglen show, introduces James Bridle’s significant body of work on drone warfare. Bridle’s Drone Shadow is an ongoing investigation into the shadow of the drone, in which one-to-one representations of the MQ-1 Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) are drawn to scale on urban landscapes, while his new project Dronestagram, launched this month, is a social media project on TwitterInstagram and Tumblr which posts a drone’s-eye-view of strike locations.

Thanks to both!

Also, in case you’ve missed it, I draw your attention to Culture+Conflict, a UK-based not-for-profit agency, founded in 2011 by Michaela Crimmon, Peter Jenkinson and Jemima Montagu, which focuses on the role of the arts and culture within conflict and post conflict situations across the world.

Bionic people: enhancement, bioethics and the politics of disability

Woman as half-cheetah half-human with prosthetics legs

Aimee Mullens in Matthew Barney’s CREMASTER 3 (2002). Superhuman exhibition.

Two current exhibitions, a workshop we recently organised at DaDaFest, and the ongoing controversy around “bladerunner” Oscar Pistorius’ inclusion in the Olympics have got me thinking about developments in human enhancement technologies and the impact on disability politics.

The athletic success of double-amputee runner Oscar Pistorius has propelled this discourse into the mainstream. Some say the blades he runs on give him an unfair advantage, allowing him to push off the ground more efficiently than a normal human ankle. This discussion of whether Pistorius, until now regarded as a “disabled” athlete, is in fact an “enhanced” athlete is an extraordinary development, and represents a major milestone in the development of prosthetics technology. Some writers, such as bioethicist Andy Miah, have pointed out that it has an even greater significance:  “… the rise of technological enhancements means that prosthetics can overtake the capacities of biological body parts and what we consider today to be optimal may, tomorrow, seem inefficient.” It is easily conceivable that different prosthetics and enhancements may give other Paralympics athletes advantages to the extent that they begin to produce faster, further, stronger, more accurate performances than athletes in the non-enhanced Olympics.

Athlete with prosthetic 'blade' legs

Oscar Pistorius, Olympic athlete

Some of the historical background to this type of speculation is explored in the Wellcome Trust’s ‘Superhuman’ exhibition, which opened in London recently and runs to October. It suggests that “scientific developments point to a future where cognitive enhancers and medical nanorobots will be widespread as we seek to augment our beauty, intelligence and health”, and does so through displaying medical, scientific and cultural artefacts which humans have used to make themselves better from early times, from an Egyptian prosthetic toe and a nose prosthetic for a 19th century syphilis victim, to modern cosmetic surgery, i-Limbs and futuristic promises of nano- and biotechnology.

Yet the vision of a bionic future jars with the reminder, in another part of the exhibition, of the artificial limbs used to “normalise” – but certainly not to enhance – thalidomide children. While there may be a gradual trend to more functional prosthetics adapted for the individual, in reality many disabled people’s experience of prosthetics is still uncomfortable, limiting and frustrating.

The notion of enhancement, of making ‘superhumans’ of disabled people, presents problems for what has been the prevailing discourse in disability politics in the English-speaking west, which centres on the social versus medical models of disability. In this discourse, there is a “medical model of disability” which sees the disabled person as a problem, to be adapted, cured or shut away. Against this, the “social model of disability” considers disablement to be created by the way that society and the physical environment have been structured, and to have little to do with impairment itself. Using this model, the ‘cure’ to the problem of disability lies in the restructuring of society. This position became increasingly rigid in the UK during the 80s and 90s, with corresponding suspicion – indeed hostility – directed at health and medical science professionals, who might wish to cure or prevent those impairments that are part of a person’s identity.

In 2006, sociologist and disability activist Tom Shakespeare suggested in his book ‘Disability Rights and Wrongs’ that the disabled people’s movement needed to move on from this polarised position. He proposed an alternative account of disability, which takes into account the interplay of individual and contextual factors. In other words, he argues that people are disabled by society and by their bodies, and therefore that it is important both to prevent impairment and to support the rights of disabled people.

A table with thousands of pills

Pharmacopoeia, Cradle to Grave II (2003). Niet Normaal.

An exhibition currently showing at Bluecoats Gallery, Liverpool, as part of DaDaFest, makes an interesting contribution to this more nuanced approach to disability, exploring themes of technological enhancement, conformity, and normality. ‘Niet Normaal’ is a new version of an international exhibition that explores the questions ‘What is normal?’ and ‘Who decides?’ through the work of contemporary artists. The Liverpool version, curated by Ine Gevers and Garry Robson, recognises that technology is generating new opportunities for people of all sorts, shapes and sizes, but sets this against the striving to become ever more uniform, ever more ‘perfect’.

Javier Tellez’s film Caligari und der Schlafwandler (Caligari and the Sleepwalker) is a delightful homage to Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), a film that has been interpreted as a commentary on the German people’s somnambulist response to the rise of the Nazis. In Tellez’s version, psychiatric patients play the characters. The story of the doctor’s “discovery” of a sleepwalking alien is beautifully produced and raises questions about what we perceive as mental illness and how we communicate our complex internal worlds. Don’t we all hear voices some of the time?

Film still (black and white) of a man holding a blackboard on which some German words are chalked, the translation is "You have to sign this form"

Javier Tellez, Caligari und der Schlafwandler (2008). Niet Normaal.

In the next gallery, a vast glass-covered table holds a collection of 14,000 pills. Pharmacopoeia’s Cradle to Grave II is the outcome of a study into the use of medicines by the average Dutch person, but is bordered by photographs and objects from daily lives. If these are the “normal” relatively healthy people, what does this vast intake of powerful medication imply for how we understand our own wellness?

Imogen Stidworthy’s video installation focuses on the speech therapy of photographer Edward Woodward, who lost his voice in an accident. The strain of his production of words is felt through vibrations on a bench. The fact that the words he is struggling to pronounce are those in the title of the piece, I Hate, suggests his anger at his debilitating situation.

As someone with a fair amount of titanium in her body, I was entertained by Floris Kaayk’s video Metalosis Maligna, a mockumentary about a disease that affects patients with metal-based implants, eating away the human tissue as the metal takes over the body. The CGT work is impressive and there are some very comic moments. It’s also showing in the Superhuman exhibition.

A man in a hospital bed, his flesh being replaced by metai

Floris Kaayk, Metalosis Maligna (2006). Niet Normaal & Superhuman.

I was at DaDaFest for the fourth project of an Arts Catalyst programme strand, Specimens to Superhumans, a collaborative project with Shape, a disability-led arts organisation. Specimens to Superhumans aims to provide a series of creative spaces for disabled artists to engage with contemporary issues around biomedical science and ethics. The activities have included artists’ commissions, panel discussions and practical creative workshops.

At DaDaFest, we organised a 2-day film-making workshop for disabled artists and film-makers, led by writer/director John Williams. The intent of the workshop was to create short films that imaginatively addressed themes of disability, bioethics and prosthetics. John Williams’ films combine live action, animation and visual effects, engagingly dealing with highly sensitive subjects. His award-winning film Robots – The Animated Docu-Soap (2000) tells the story of three redundant robots who, having acquired disabilities or mental illness, attempt to reassert meaning to their lives, while in Paraphernalia (2009) a young boy gets annoyed with the little robot that follows him everywhere, but the robot is more than just a toy and turns out to be the object on which his life depends.

The two short films produced by the participants in less than two days – Side Effects and The Experiment – will be showcased at DaDaFest Film Shorts on 21 August 2012, at FACT, starting at 5pm. We also hope to put them online – so watch this space.

John Williams, Robots – The Animated Docu-Soap (2000)

John Williams, Paraphernalia (2009)

Proposal: an arts/science* ethics advisory panel initiative

Man with an ear growing on one forearmTransparent lab jar with unidentifiable piece of meat-like substance in it

* arts/science, in this context only, implies art that needs or would value science ethics expertise

Following from the artist-initiated events, Gina Czarnecki’s Wasted Debates round table, and Anna Dumitriu’s Trust Me, I’m an Artist with Neal White, I want to suggest a possible structure for an independent arts ethics advisory panel, since a number of artists have said that they would benefit from expert ethics advice on their proposed projects, both to reassure funders, venues, collaborators and media, and to advise the project itself.

This might apply to artworks that use human remains, art that involves people ingesting certain substances, art that involves animals, or art that involves genetically-modified or bioengineered substances or living things, as examples.

I propose that an advisory panel system is set up. The term “ethics committee” may be more useful as a reassurance to some bodies, but a panel implies a more advisory function rather than providing ‘rulings’ or issuing ‘approval’ – which I feel is more appropriate to an art context – and perhaps a less static membership.

The requirements for such a panel are, I believe:

- appropriate balance of expertise

- independence from the proposed project under review

- accessible for artists

- flexible and unbureaucratic

I suggest we need a database of advisors, drawn from science, the arts and ethics, who may either nominate themselves or come via some sort of nomination process (what do people think?). We also need a public list of panel conveners. The conveners play a key role.

How it would work

An artist could approach one of the conveners to ask them to put together an independent panel to consider the artist’s proposed project (or a project underway). The advisory panel would have appropriate expertise, including – I suggest – at least one artist, relevant scientific and ethics expertise, and a curator or exhibitions organiser.

The panel would discuss the proposal and provide the artist with written comments and advice (rather than a ‘ruling’), and would include attached to the document the names and qualifications/expertise of the advisory panel members.

This written statement could then be presented by the artist to venues, funders and collaborators to support a project proposal, and provide information, advice and reassurance on key ethical, legal and safety issues.

Of course, the statement can and may be disregarded by the artist, at their own judgement and risk.

Provisos

My provisos to this proposal are that, to be sustainable, particularly assuming that demand will grow, it would be better if the process could be systemised to reduce workload (perhaps a panel meets once a quarter to review several proposals), and the conveners and panel members recompensed, unless their occupation covers their time on such a panel.

A funding or research body might support this, in which case the initiative might have to be constituted to raise funds. Alternatively, funds to convene a panel could be built into fundraising applications and sponsorship proposals for the art project (so a standardised list of fees would be needed).

Thoughts please!

These are just some thoughts, based on discussions and experience of cross-disciplinary panels. I welcome your comments and further suggestions or alternative proposals.

Images (L-R): Stelarc, Third Ear, Tissue Culture & Art Project, Victimless Leather, 

Wasted debates: using human remains in art

Illuminated translucent sculpture

Gina Czarnecki, Palace (2011). Photo: Sam Meech

Recently, I took part in a round table discussion on the use of human remains in art. The discussion participants included ethics experts, scientists, artists and curators. It was impressive in its breadth and depth of expertise. The round table was part of a series of events connected with Gina Czarnecki’s exhibition at Bluecoats, Liverpool, which includes a series of works from her Wasted series, which use donated human tissue (from living donors).

The topic relates to some of my interests in ethics in art and the display of human remains, and the discussion has sparked a lot of further thought. I would like to explain a little of the specific context in which this event took place, and give a brief summary of the discussion (you can also watch the full discussion online). In a later post, I want to suggest a possible way forward in terms of ethical reviews of artists’ projects.

I’ve known Gina Czarnecki for several years and had the privilege to work with her in 2002, when Arts Catalyst commissioned her work Silvers Alter for our exhibition CleanRooms. Most of her works in the exhibition at Bluecoats are film and interactive installations. Czarnecki has a striking and distinctive aesthetic working with image of the human body. However, one room displays her new body of work, which represents a new departure, shifting from moving image to the sculptural form and a preoccupation with the material. These works all incorporate ‘discarded’ body parts such as children’s milk teeth, and bones and fat from living, consenting donors, and explore the significance of these parts in relation to to history, mythology and science, as well as raising issues of consent and donation.

Image of a human being prone against a dark background

Gina Czarnecki, Infected (2009)

At the opening of the round table, Gina Czarnecki explained that her father was a concentration camp survivor, and this family history influences her work. She also explained her long-term exploration of biotechnology and its impact on the human image. I felt that this context was important in understanding her work.

People specifically donated their body fat and bones to her Wasted projects via a surgeon. (Children directly donate their milk teeth). But the surgeon was later advised that his involvement in the project might compromise his license to practice, not because of any ethical transgression, but because of “bad press”. Czarnecki voluntarily returned the bones.

Czarnecki, and her collaborating scientists, Sara Rankin and Rod Dillon, had a series of similarly disheartening experiences: approaching institutional collaborators to collaborate, who would at first be interested and then balk because of the lack of “ethical approval” (Rod Dillon outlines some of this process in his blog post).

In fact, there is no legal need for an artist to have ethical approval for the display of human tissues from living people, if they have given their consent. Nonetheless the institutions were nervous. But even were there a need for ethical approval for some procedure as part of an artist’s project, no body exists to give such approval. So there is a Catch 22, which is causing problems for increasing numbers of artists. Also, as Gina pointed out, quite apart from just allaying collaborators’ and funders’ concerns, many artists would like to have ethical approval for what they are doing, as well as sound advice on biosafety. A number of experts on the committee thought it was very strange that no one was prepared to say that this work was “ethical”.

At one point, the conversation became – as it often does in cross-disciplinary dialogues – bogged down in whether or not some of the participants liked or understood Czarnecki’s work. But to me the point, in terms of a discussion on ethics, is not whether someone likes Czarnecki’s Palace artistically or not, or whether it conveys clear ideas (about the science it engages with, for example). As Bronac Ferran noted at the meeting, art’s function isn’t necessarily to be aesthetically pleasing or to increase understanding, but often it is precisely to disrupt, confuse, and provoke. The point rather, in terms of ethics, is whether, at an early enough stage in the works’ development, the artist has informed herself and considered the ethical (and legal) implications of the work in detail, has an understanding of the possible implications, and can discuss how these might be addressed in the process and presentation of her work and any long-term consequences.

There is, of course, the thorny issue of “benefit”. Scientific ethics committees work by considering whether the potential benefits of a piece of research outweigh the risks (assuming that there are risks). I assume that it is not always straightforward to see the potential benefits of a piece of scientific research, let alone a work of art. I suppose there are both practical benefits to society – in art, perhaps this is the showing of the work publicly – and less tangible ones, in contributing to the “body of knowledge” of art (in the same way that science can contribute to knowledge as well as to technology or medical applications). In which case, perhaps the only way to assess the likely “benefit” of an artwork, if this is necessary in the context of risk, is to look at the track record of the artist, rather than relying on a subjective response to a specific proposal.

In a forthcoming blog post, I’ll try to outline a proposal for how we might practically approach this “grey area” in dealing with ethics between artists’ practice and the institution.

Two people (seen from the back) watch a video installation on which are naked people

Gina Czarnecki, Silvers Alter (2002)

Let’s experiment with ourselves

An artist in a respiratory air mask sits in a plastic tent. Test tubes and bottles on a table in front of him.

Neal White, The Void. Image: Office of Experiments

Self-Experimentation and the Ethics Committee of 1

A report on the event ‘Trust Me, I’m an Artist: Towards an Ethics of Art and Science Collaboration

Artist: Neal White
Ethics committee: Professor Bobbie Farsides (Chair), Professor Michael Parker, Professor Bob Brecher, Dr Julian Sheather, Professor Richard Faragher, Helen Sloan 

Last week, Arts Catalyst hosted ‘Trust Me, I’m An Artist’ one of a series of events taking place around Europe, created by Anna Dumitriu, investigating ethical issues arising in some art and science collaboration and considering the roles and responsibilities of artists, scientists and institutions. At each event, an internationally known artist proposes an artwork to a specially convened ethics committee, in front of an audience. The committee, following the rules of ethics committees they serve on, discusses the proposal and reach a decision. The panel then informs the artist of the decision and, with the audience, discusses the result with the committee.

Artist Neal White gave a fascinating, provocative presentation about his project: The Void, in which he recreated Yves Klein‘s “blue urine” experiment. In May 1959, on the opening of Yves Klein’s exhibition Le Vide (The Void) in Paris, Klein served special blue cocktail, containing Methylene blue. As Klein intended, the cocktails caused the urine of drinkers to turn blue for about a week. Since this event took place in 1959, Methylene blue as a stain has been established as toxic. However, it is also a component in several medications, is used to reduce symptoms of cystitis, and in other forms for treating methemoglobinemia.

Blue liquid falling in a stream

Neal White, The Void. Image: Office of Experiments

In 2004, White proposed a research experiment whilst artist in residence at the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR). He proposed to re-stage Klein’s event as an experiment to establish what were the safest, or least toxic, dosage of Methylene blue in an alcoholic cocktail required to turn urine blue. Visitors would be faced with a choice: either to consume an artwork that contained the ingredients of Methylene blue, with only the clinical information provided, or to keep the artwork they were given (the pill and information) as an intact form, signed by the artist.

The artist intended the experiment to be both a cultural experiment which utilized a clinical trial under closely monitored conditions, and a challenge to the limits of artistic practice in its engagement with science, and specifically in its engagement with the politics of consent and belief, and the institutions themselves (White’s practice incorporates a strong current of institutional critique). His aim, he explained to the committee, was also to question the physical site of an artwork and our willingness to participate, beyond a visual experience, in an embodied experience of art, and join the ranks of the “self-experimenters”.

White’s presentation was impressive, and raised interesting issues not only around the nature of an artwork, and the fascinating ethics raised by medical self-experimentation (which has a long history), but also how we perceive authority and expertise, the limits of autonomous decision-making, and the nature of the ethics committee itself. White explained that the NIMR ethics committee had turned down his original proposal, but that he had performed the art experiment in an art gallery setting instead. However, he did not explain to the panel the reasons for that committee’s decision.

The structure of the event was that the artist then left the space for half an hour while the ethics committee discussed his proposal.

Because of their brief – that they follow the rules and procedures typical of the host country – the ethics committee (a highly-qualified and experienced group of experts) struggled for half an hour to find a way to engage coherently with the proposal. Bob Brecher asked whether the proposal was for an artwork or art research, because ethics committees only deal with research. This uncertainty about how to categorise the proposal was rather a shame, as it meant the conversation continued to return to this basic issue and thus to stall, which reduced the opportunity to explore some of the interesting ethics. The audience didn’t get to see the artist’s completed ethics form, which had clearly confused members of the committee. Richard Faragher, who throughout seemed most opposed to the proposed, noted: “To stand before an ethics committee you are making a claim that the benefits (of your research) outweigh the risks”. Faragher could not see the ‘benefits’ of the ‘research’ at all. Helen Sloan, the arts curator on the committee, challenged the concept of ‘benefit’ in respect of art. Professor Michael Parker commented with characteristic common sense: “My view is this is an interesting artwork, relatively low risk. The problem is the (nature of an) ethics committee”. Julian Sheather wondered whether the artist was playing a joke on the committee. “If so” he mused, “it’s rather a good one.” The audience was clearly desperate to jump in to the debate, but that wasn’t to be allowed until after the decision was given to the artist.

Glasses and dishes on a table, rubber gloves, a sheet of paper with 'Menu for the Void'

Neal White, The Void. Image: Office of Experiments

When Neal White returned to the room, Bobbie Farsides gave the overall verdict of the committee: “A low risk artwork, but possibly not within the remit of an ethics committee to decide on”. Faragher disagreed strongly and said that he would not give his permission to the experiment to go ahead.

In the lively discussion that followed with the artist and audience, the audience joined in enthusiastically. Some were disappointed that the committee had not engaged with the breadth and subtlety of Neal’s presentation. But perhaps that was in the nature of the brief that they were given. White explained that when the NIMR had turned down the proposal, they had done so not on the basis of the harm it might do the participants, but because they did not want any potential “bad” publicity at the time.

The discussion continued about the “benefit” of his work, Sheather complaining that artists seem to set out to shock and so it was difficult sometimes to see the benefits. It always saddens me to hear this, first because it only applies to some artists, and – if you press the person who says this – it’s almost always the same names cited (Chapmans, Emin, Hirst, and the Sensation exhibition). And, frankly, I’ve been far more profoundly shocked by things that have taken place under the umbrella of science than any art I’ve encountered, but I wouldn’t make judgements on all scientists based on that.

Neal White had the last word when he quoted the late artist John Latham on the ‘benefits’ of art: “The contribution of art to society is art”.

A series of newspapers, each titled 'The Self-Experimenter'

Neal White, The Self-Experimenter. Image: Office of Experiments

Human specimens: a labyrinth of morality, science and law

Aaron Williamson, Specimen Mirror, performance, with the skeleton of Charles Byrne, Hunterian Museum, 2011

I was interested to see this debate come up in the media just before Christmas:

Royal College of Surgeons rejects call to bury skeleton of ‘Irish giant’

The authors of a paper in the British Medical Journal called for the skeletal remains of a man called Charles Byrne, the so-called ‘Irish Giant’, on display in the Royal College of Surgeon’s Hunterian Museum in London, to be buried at sea. Byrne, who lived in the 18th century and was 7′ 7″ tall, was an object of curiosity for the  famous surgeon and anatomist Sir John Hunter. Byrne became so afraid that doctors would dissect his corpse after his death that he left specific instructions for his body to be buried at sea. But when he died, aged just 22, Hunter bribed a member of the funeral party and stole the body. Byrne’s skeleton has been on public display ever since. The BMJ paper’s authors claimed that all possible medical insights from the skeleton have now been gleaned and Byrne’s remains should be buried according to his wishes, but the Hunterian Museum rejected this call, saying that it considers that the educational and research benefits merit retaining Byrne’s remains.

This story has a particular interest for me because, in May last year, we co-organised an event with the disability arts group Shape at the Hunterian Museum. Titled ‘Labyrinth of Living Exhibits’, the event addressed the issue of human specimens in such collections.

The Hunterian is little known, central yet tucked away upstairs at the Royal College of Surgeons on Lincoln’s Inn Fields. There are thousands of specimens on display, the remains of the once vast collection made by Hunter. Many still carry his classification as either ‘morbid’ or ‘normal’. The unsettling collection contains many human parts, including whole skeletons and human foetuses. The focus of Hunter’s collecting was clearly biased towards ‘the different’ – extreme cases of growth, “abnormality” and disease.

In the Labyrinth of Living Exhibits, artist Aaron Williamson curated four simultaneous, specially commissioned, site-specific performances, which infiltrated and responded to the collection, performed simultaneously by disabled artists Aaron Williamson, Sinéad O’Donnell, Brian Catling and Katherine Araniello.

Katherine Araniello, BiPAP 1 (Living Experiment), photo Royal College of Surgeons, 2011

In Araniello’s work, she took on the guise of a guinea pig escaped from a laboratory in a dark, slow and subversive performance. Brian Catling’s performance Out of Its Depth, in fact, began at the Hunterian in 1979 in response to a “specimen” which the Museum housed until recently: the body of a one-eyed child (now locked away out of public view). Wearing a latex, one-eyed mask, Catling walked through the collections or stood by a pillar, peering through his fingers and making faces, mirroring the audience’s curiosity. In Williamson’s own performance, Specimen Mirror, he distorted his own facial features by pressing them against the glass cases of the collections, in response to the flattened suspended specimens.

Brian Catling, Out Of Its Depth, photo Royal College of Surgeons, 2011

A lively panel discussion followed the performances. Aaron Williamson opened the discussion by describing the impetus for each of the performances, explaining his curatorial interest in the responses of artists who are “set apart from the norm” through illness or medical prognosis.

The museum’s director, Sam Alberti, then gave an honest exposition of the Hunterian’s collections of “disabled people as objects”. He explained that the museum was set up in the 18th and developed in the 19th century, and that in those centuries museums were in the business of “classifying” difference. Human remains that came into museums were classified against the “norm”, which at that time, he said, was male, heterosexual, white and European. Anyone else was pathologised. The Hunterian Museum, Alberti explained, is not a medical museum, but a medical history museum, and what it displays are the legacies of prejudice. Alberti said that he felt very passionately that it was important to understand and show to the public the representation and construction of difference, and that the display had to be seen through this historical lens. Araniello disagreed with Alberti and said she didn’t feel that it was helpful at all to have such images and specimens on display for the public, and that it did more harm than good in continuing to objectify and pathologies people.

You can watch video recordings of the full panel discussion here.

Panel discussion of Labyrinth Living Exhibits, photo Royal College of Surgeons, 2011

So I found it fascinating to see the debate about Charles Byrne’s remains raised again in the media, quoting Alberti saying “The Royal College of Surgeons believes that the value of Charles Byrne’s remains, to living and future communities, currently outweighs the benefits of carrying out Byrne’s apparent request to dispose of his remains at sea.”

It is a complex debate between science, education and morality, complicated by a man’s dying wishes and a nasty case of corpse robbing.

But there is also a wider context for this debate in the claims on human remains in all other museum collections. Since the late 1970s, human remains in museum collections have been subject to claims and controversies, such as demands for repatriation by indigenous groups who suffered under colonization. These requests have often been contested by the museums and by scientists who research the material and consider it unique evidence, echoing the Hunterian’s arguments over Byrne’s remains.

This is a topic that has interested me for several years. At one point, I was involved in some very early stage discussions with another London museum about an exhibition on such a theme. Whilst the exhibition never developed, there has been much progress in this area over the last decade. Increasingly, many museums are removing human remains from their collections, sometimes returning them to their countries of origin, often for reburial. One sticking point was legislation that prevented most national museums from removing items from their collections, but this changed in 2004 (under Section 47 of the Human Tissue Act), and nine national museums now have the power to deaccession human remains under 1000 years old held in their collections. In 2011, for example, the Natural History Museum returned 19 ancestral remains to the Torres Strait Island community. There is an interesting video about the return on the museum’s site.

But in a book published last year, Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections, the sociologist Tiffany Jenkins argued that museums were being “over-sensitive” to demands for greater “respect” for human remains, and removing specimens from public display that were valued by museum-goers.

It is an interesting and ongoing debate. Do you have examples of other art projects or exhibitions that have explored these issues? I’d be interested to hear.

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