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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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3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Roddy #

    An interesting article but, I do feel more emphasis should be placed upon the argument FOR the removal of human specimen’s from museums.

    The BMJ article (written by an emminent surgeon and expert on medical ethics) expressly focuses upon debunking the often fatuous arguments put forward by Royal College of Surgeon’s Hunterian Museum that ” (the Museum) 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.”

    He specifically mentions;
    a. (Byrne’s ) DNA has been extracted and stored from (Byrne’s) skeletal remains and is in store / on file
    b. that 3D CT (computed tomography) scanning can accurately map the complete skeleton and,
    c. modern techniques can enable creation / manufacture of a complete 100% accurate skeleton for display / physical / practical examination.

    His argument is that there is not medical or scientifc justifcation for the continued retention of Byrne’s remains.

    It is a well-established principle of law that ‘there is no property in a corpse.’ This means that the law does not regard a corpse as property protected by rights. In other words there can be no ‘ownership’ of a dead body. The only exception is where body parts acquire different attributes by virtue of the application of skill, e.g. dissection and/or preservation techniques.

    So .. why the debate.. it’s immoral.. but unfortunately, not illegal.

    So, as long as individuals (and, by extension, corporate bodies) hide behind ‘legal’ requirements rather than upholdng their moral duties and obligations, then such iniquities will continue to be part of our ‘civilised’ world.

    January 6, 2012
  2. Nicola Triscott #

    In this case, my personal view accords with yours. I think it was a disgraceful crime and should not be upheld even 200 years later. The man deserved the burial he requested. However, I wanted the article to raise these issues more generally, rather than to state my own views in this specific case.

    January 6, 2012

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