A few years ago, I visited the Rosemount Museum in Pueblo, Colorado. An exhibit in the attic of the house museum featured (among other things) taxidermal animals. In the center of the room, encased in glass, stood the centerpiece of the collection: mummified human remains in an open sarcophagus. The juxtaposition–a preserved hawk, for example, mere steps away from the embalmed human body–was so jarring that I actually took a few steps back. The docent who guided my group’s tour through the house called the remains the “crown jewel” of Andrew McClelland’s collection, a souvenir he purchased on a trip to Egypt, and said we were lucky. “This mummy,” she explained, “is not always on display.”
On the way home from the museum, I thought about my moment of repulsion. What about that body had so shocked me? Was it the proximity of death, of decay? I didn’t think so. More unsettling was its position in the room, its status as a curiosity to be displayed with other curiosities. This was a person, a person who had been mourned and laid to rest, and without whose permission had been removed from their resting place, purchased as a souvenir, and put on display. What are the ethics of this kind of artifact?
With this experience in mind, I looked up what archives do with human remains. How are they treated? How are they used? What do they do with remains that were taken without the prior permission of the living person or the consent of their community? Penn Museum has an official statement on human remains, a policy that guides the handling and treatment of the remains (from over 12,000 individuals) that reside in their archives. The statement “provides a general framework that acknowledges the complexities of human remains as part of our collections and strives to ensure that any use of our collections is conducted in a professional and respectful way.”
The statement addresses stewardship, display, documentation, loans, storage, access, handling, conservation, educational use, and research related to the remains. The statement also briefly mentions the deaccessioning process for human remains:
“The deaccessioning of human remains is handled on a case-by-case basis and generally occurs as a result of NAGPRA [Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act]-related repatriation processes overseen by the Museum’s NAGPRA Committee. All deaccessions must be approved by the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania.”
This statement, to me, signals that Penn isn’t proactive about returning human remains to their communities of origin. What is our ethical responsibility to those communities and to the remains of their members held in our archives? It seems to me that it’s long past time to reconsider the ethics, the optics, and the humanity of these collections and those like Rosemount Museum’s mummified body.