Friday, December 5, 2008

On Displaying Human Remains In the Museum

Museums sometimes cross the boundaries of tastefulness when opting to display human remains over some more acceptable substitute, like a molded plaster body or a fiberglass mannequin.

This is not surprising. Such decisions are motivated by the financial rewards that such exhibits promise. A display of human remains produces the requisite amount of thrills, shock, and any number of other expletives that crowds have long come to expect from the museum. Many are offended, but there are just as many or more who expect such sensations from museums. P.T. Barnum, one-time proprietor of the American Museum in antebellum New York, was among pioneers of what would become the modern museum and he tested the limits of propriety on every occassion he could.

Realizing the public’s taste for nature’s superlatives: the tallest, the smallest, and bizaare, he sought to put all under one big roof and, later, under a even bigger tent. These attractions seem every bit as inappropriate as displaying the mummified dead in a natural history or fine art museum , if we consider that Barnum's "attractions" were both exploited and humiliated by their "display," even though they were compensated financially. These people were defined as freaks and likened to, among other things, animals and otherworldly creatures all day and daily, for, as Barnum would coin, "a sucker is born every minute." That condition alone tested the limits of morality. There were Figian mermaids floating in alcohol, the likes of the living and breathing Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins, and an odd mummy or two. Barnum's "displays," although arguably in a museum of a different sort than the scholarly institutions of today, fed an insatiable public appetite for something out of the ordinary, the sensation, the shocker. The public's insatiable appetite for the shocking remains to this day, although technology has allowed for the greater dissemination of each new example and the number of those who can exploit it.

Some older museums have more recently been getting on the bandwagonclearly realizing the potential of their own collections to shock and draw in greater numbers of the public. Consider Philadelphia’s own College of Physicians Mutter Museum. Who would have thought that such a museum would have interested anyone outside the medical community, and for the longest time no one did. Now its an extremely popular destination for whole new audiences. Here one can see the human body in every imaginable position and from every imaginable viewpoint, including inside out (and there is a plaster mold of Barnum's one-time attraction Chang and Eng here too).

The major draw to its doors are human bodies preserved through a process known as plasticization. Although these bodies were indeed real, I often had to remind myself, for they often defied my experience and imagination. What makes these displays of human bodies acceptable and other displays of human remains unacceptable or tasteless, like that of the 500 year old Incan teenagers or the long displayed remains of Pharoahs that have raised objections in recent years? Weren’t these bodies once intended for education of physicians alone? Weren’t these bodies donated by their onetime living owners for the purposes of medical enlightenment? Maybe many never had the choice of what would become of their remain, and they were simply taken from the morgue? Regardless of how these bodies came to be in this museum, they have taken on a role beyond their original intention.

These plasticized bodies don’t serve merely as tools for instruction anymore, but as cheap thrills for many who seek an afternoon of entertainment without ever considering that some might consider this somehow degrading to humanity itself. This makes this museum as guilty as any other museum of not only tastelessness but of maligning humanity itself. But even realizing that, and rebuking ourselves for it, we might still line up and see what there is to see; I, for one,
Financial rewards far outweigh consideration of the far fewer number of people that will voice their objections to such practices.

Consider the objections of Rudy Guiliani, then mayor of New York, to the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition of Chris Ofili’s depiction of The Holy Virgin Mary in the Damien Hirst's sensational exhibition Young British Artists From the Saatchi Collection / Sensation some ten years ago? I can understand a comparable lack of sensitivity to the sanctity of one religious group’s belief when a museum chooses to exhibit a work that seemingly maligns it with a depiction that includes both elephant dung and pornographic cut-outs. I don’t think that Catholics should be any less accepting of such a decision on the part of a museum to objectify a heritage that might include 500 year old Incan teenagers sacrificed and placed on an Andean mountain or ancient Egyptians whose intent was to be sealed in their tombs for all eternity.

No matter how you slice it you come out with museums defiling something that is sacrosanct to a whole group of people. If we stand by the opinion that any one of these scenarios is a defilement on the part of a museum then we can't really excuse any display of the dead regardless of how long they ahve been dead or from what culture they originate. Mummies seem to be an exception for many because their place in the museum orginates with the concept of the modern museum itself. Their age and seemingly lacking connection with a living group ( The modern Egyptian minority known as Coptics certainly claim a greater connection than those who distinguish themselves as Arab Egyptians).

It shouldn't be overlooked that there is a long tradition of defiling the bodies of ancient Egyptians, not only have they been unwrapped and put on display now for centuries ( and this happens to this day—Ramses II had to be treated for mold in recent years, so he was unwrapped temporarily to treat the problem at the Egyptian Museum ). Mummies were also once pulverized and sold for medicinal purposes to Europeans in the nineteenth century. They have been carted around the world and most obviously detached from their intended eternal resting place. That seems pretty tasteless and base, if you think about it.

Europeans were in large introduced to the mummy through the ministrations of Napoleon in military campaigns that also succeeded at both documenting and plundering Egypt for its antiquities long before most other nations thought to do so. The foundation of the Louvre’s own collections is thew product of Napoleon’s own love for history and his propensity for bringing back whatever he could in his attempts at world conquest. But the Napoleonic French weren't the first to desecrate the graves of dead Egyptians, which was and is a largely a byproduct of accessing the priceless treasures that accompanied them in their eternal rest. These remains had been desecrated a thousand years earlier by the Byzantines first and then the Arabs, and while there surely those who saw the opportunity to make a quick buck by doing so the greater number saw it as a religious obligation.

Should we accept the practice of displaying the remains of ancient Egyptians because there is a tradition of doing so within our own culture of some two hundred years? Should the age or cultural origins of human remains determine whether they should be exhibited in a museum, or should all human remains be treated equally and not exhibited?

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