23rd Cambridge Heritage Symposium - Encountering Human Remains: Heritage Issues and Ethical Considerations
Cambridge Heritage Research Centre
Encounters with human remains captivate the human psyche in a myriad of unique ways. While archaeologists usually approach human remains as a source of scientific data that illuminates how ancient people lived and died, others attribute tremendous cultural, spiritual, and political significance to them. Owing to these complex meanings and the unique symbolic power they embody, human remains often receive a prominent spotlight and public attention in various spaces. For example, museums around the world often display human remains for their educational and scientific value, whereas in attention-grabbing travelling exhibitions, anatomical human remains can be transformed into objects of morbid curiosity. Various forms of media including mainstream news media and social media further amplify this fascination and foster an increasing focus on death resulting in death-related aesthetics, literary movements, and even fashion trends.
The spiritual, cultural, or personal desire to encounter the dead can mobilise masses of people to visit historic sites of conflict, violence, and death as sites of tourism or as sacred sites where they can reflect on the magnitude of the loss of life and honour the dead. At the same time, mass graves as heritage sites encounter problems with visitors who do not respect the dead as the event in question recedes from memory. But what sort of behaviour is appropriate and should it be policed? Those who approach the dead from different epistemologies can place the dead closer to the realm of the living, maintaining their status as peoples and spirits and rejecting their relegation to mere curiosities.
In recent decades, a growing body of literature on human remains has examined how unique and complex the approaches to and encounters with the remains of the dead may be for various communities and within different heritage contexts. This conference seeks to explore these diverse perspectives and invites papers interrogating different forms of encounters with human remains and deathscapes under an ethical heritage lens.
More info: https://www.heritage.arch.cam.ac.uk/events/annual-symposia
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Minority Forensics: Survivor-Led Exhumations and Violence against the Dead in the Early Post-Holocaust Poland
My paper moves beyond a mere reconstruction of the specificities and the social context of these practices. Instead, it proposes to reconsider the postwar exhumations and reburials performed by Jewish survivors in Poland as a form of politics of dead bodies – and to do the same with its violent counterparts. I consider the early postwar survivor-lead exhumations both, as a testament to the urgency of the dead, and to the understanding of the survivors that the dead were under constant threat. Inspired by conceptualisations of bottom-up practices of the search for bodies in contemporary Latin America proposed by Schwarz-Martin and Cruz-Santiago (as forensic civism), and by recent framings of the research activities of Jewish survivors in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust as survivor activism, I frame the early postwar exhumations in terms of minority forensics, a politics of dead bodies, and the memory and knowledge production that operated in a complex conjunction with, and against, the dominant necropolitical frames.
Death and Heritage Tourism: A Case Study of the Cellular Jail of Port Blair
Simran Kaur & Shriya Gautam
The purpose of this paper is to critically examine the display and the curation of incidences of colonial violence and death as can be seen in the case of the Cellular Jail of Port Blair. This paper also seeks to analyse how monuments of colonial times can simultaneously be used for the purpose of political identity and amplifying heritage-nationalism in the post colonial setup among the public of the present. For the purpose of this, the tourism authorities concerned with the Cellular Jail were interviewed. A detailed analysis of the display and engagement tools at the site was also undertaken alongside secondary sources.
The Burial of Masada's Dead: A Politicized Act of Remembrance
This politically and ideologically charged act was seen as a way of reinforcing the Zionist narrative and consolidating the idea of Jewish heroism. It was also a symbolic act, an affirmation of Jewish dominance over the land and a way to honour the memory of those who had died in Masada. However, it is also likely to have been a way of erasing any doubts about the dead, as at the time the bones could not be identified as belonging to Jews or Romans.
This research explores the handling of human remains, more specifically of the bones found at Masada, and examines the ethical concerns about their burial. By delving into the historical and political context of this act, the research aims to enhance our understanding of the interplay between cultural heritage, politics and ethical concerns. Finally, the research emphasizes revealing the truth, especially when cultural heritage has been misrepresented and also it identifies opportunities to improve existing practices for promoting and presenting history to visitors.
A Critical Assessment of Current Guidelines and Practice Regarding the Display of Ancient Egyptian Mummified Remains in English Museums: An Ethical Perspective.
Alexandra Iona Rutherford
This research challenges the assumption that human remains on display are an important education tool for the general public and raises questions regarding current display practices in major institutions. Furthermore, this research highlights how Western Society’s interaction with Egyptian mummified remains over the last two centuries has impacted current practices regarding their display in English museums with a focus on two contrasting case studies from the British Museum and the Liverpool World Museum. This has led to the current guidance from the Department of Culture, Media and Sports (2005) to not be fit for purpose and are often unutilised. The principal guidance from the DCMS and other organisations is to treat human remains with ‘dignity and respect’ which raise larger ethical issues regarding the display of ancient Egyptian mummies- particularly those which have been subjected to modification by the Western world. This research draws attention to the vagueness of the advice and the difficulties in applying the concepts themselves to human remains.
As it is unlikely that all Egyptian mummified remains will be removed from display, there needs to be a larger conversation involving more of the public and a new working framework established which can be applied unequivocally as the treatment of human remains are too important to be left interpretation. This research concludes three important points to be considered before displaying ancient Egyptian mummies and the overarching principle throughout should be the consideration of ‘personhood’.This research was submitted to fulfil an undergraduate dissertation requirement at the University of Liverpool.
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Appropriation in Archaeology Under the Colonial Rule in India: A Case Study of the Buddhist Reliquary, Sonari, Madhya Pradesh
The paper will look at the case study of the reliquary of Buddhist Missionaries excavated from Stupa No. 2 at Sonari by Alexander Cunningham and presently housed at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The purpose of this paper is to look at the reliquary acquired by the Colonial Archaeologist under the Treasure Trove Act of 1878 and the significance this religious object holds. The paper will also look at the ethical issue of the display of human remains and previous case studies of religious objects under colonial activities. Furthermore, the potential for repatriation as a method of decolonizing the system and the future scope of research that can help carry it out in an ethical way will be discussed. The author has studied the object for this purpose, and both primary and secondary sources are used to reach a conclusion.
Exhibiting Human Remains in Museums: A Historical, Ethical, Institutional Issue
Remains of ancestors have always been powerful memorials of fundamental importance in human society. From the Greek translation of bones of mythic founders of poleis to the Roman pompa funebris, from the display of human remains in the Wunderkammers to the memento mori of the Capuchins’ crypts, human remains have always been attributed symbolic meanings and messages well beyond their materiality. They were also given a specific treatment that could change according to the society and culture they belonged to, but that was always specific and ritualized.
In the past century, we have witnessed the emergence of new sensibilities towards human remains, which embedded the colonial history of the Western world and its consequences. Also, hot debates are erupting over their ethical display policies, contexts, and settings. Starting from the Smithsonian and the American museums, human remains and the possibility of putting them on display have begun to be treated differently and receiving new attention and, in some cases, even specific legislation.
This study briefly reviews the history of exhibiting human remains and introduces an ongoing research project that aims at understanding today’s general situation regarding the relationship between human remains, museums and museum visitors. The project focuses on collecting and comparing the existing guidelines and regulations regarding the exhibition and treatment of human remains in museums at an international level. Case studies countries include Italy and other European and Anglophone countries (especially the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, which have been strongly affected by such debates and are very active on this issue). The research methodology will be presented alongside the first synthesis of the data obtained through contacting and interviewing museums.