The skeleton in the Grosvenor Museum

I have just reviewed a new edited book by Myra Giesen entitled Curating Human Remains: Caring for the Dead in the United Kingdom. It is a valuable and rich collection, and only now it is published can you gain a sense of how necessary it was. The book looks at the practical and ethical issues surrounding how human remains are stored, displayed and used for educational purposes and scientific research in the UK. Museums are a key focus. I have reviewed this in the Archaeological Journal 171 for 2014, out in Sept 2014 but online before then. I open my review thus:

“This edited collection is of use and value for anyone interested in mortuary archaeology, museums and human remains”

and I conclude thus:

“The treatment and curation of human remains in the UK is now a key area of ongoing debate and this book has a place in informing those involved and interested in recent developments.”

A lead cremation urn – on display in a section on lead mining and lead artefacts in the Newstead gallery, Grosvenor Museum

As I have blogged about before, I am also co-editing my own collection on human remains and public engagement, provisionally titled Archaeologists and the Dead: Mortuary Archaeology and Contemporary Society. This book has a wider geographical span than Giesen’s and is interested in other dimensions of the relationship between archaeologists dealings with the ancient dead and our current attitudes and practices surrounding death.

Still, in both Giesen’s book and my book, we have a rich range of case studies regarding the ways in which dead bodies are key parts of the archaoelogical story about past societies. The temporary exhibition at the British Museum on Vikings is but one example. And while there are groups that object to human remains on display, seen most visibly in the recent objections to the new Stonehenge Visitor Centre, they are a small minority.

One criticism of both books can be made. Both Giesen’s and my forthcoming book struggle to tackle the complex issues affecting the curation and display of human remains in smaller – local and regional – museum contexts in the UK, where space is limited, human remains might not be as spectacular and eyecatching (i.e. mummies, bog bodies and masses of human skeletons), and yet still constitute an integral component of local and regional narratives of the human past on display from prehistory to recent times.

My son taking a break below the reconstruction of a Roman tombstone

Mark Hall’s contribution in Giesen’s book (focusing on Perth Museum and Art Gallery) and a fraction of my paper on the display of cremated remains in my own forthcoming book (discussing the rich range of human remains on display at Colchester Museum) are the key exceptions that come to mind. Still, in the published literature, the museum focus tends to be on national and international collections such as the Great Northern Museum or the Museum of London. Yet a large proportion of the human remains on display and curated in the UK are within smaller contexts as opposed to national and international museums.

The Grosvenor Museum, Chester, is a fascinating case study in this regard because it highlights how remains from mortuary contexts can be put on display even with extremely limited available space for permanent exhibitions. There is only a single, disappointing case for the whole of prehistory in the rgion and there is no post-Roman archaeology gallery. Still, for the Roman period, the Newstead gallery contains a lead cremation urn and numerous artefacts from mortuary contexts, such as brooches and glass vessels. The Webster gallery of Roman stones has a superbly lit and rich selection of Roman tombstones excavated from Chester. Finally, at the end of the Roman stones gallery there is a new display focusing on death and commemoration, using an exmaple of a centurian’s tombstone.

Roman tombstones on display at the Grosvenor Museum

Now there is a skeleton on display, so this is not a desperate attempt to avoid the display of the dead per se on some purist ethical drive to annihilate the presence of the ancient dead from public view. However, this skeleton was found in a Roman well, and may have been someone who fell to their death or else whose body was deposited in a clandestine fashion. Whatever the explanation, the bones are not conclusively the result of ‘mortuary practice’.

So, what is most striking of all about the Grosvenor Museum is how they do all this, and discuss death, society and the afterlife in the Roman period, without substantial displays of human remains. Partly this is due to practical reasons – the tombstones were already well out of context long before they were recovered. Likewise, many of the mortuary artefacts were recovered long before detailed records were being made of their funerary contexts. Furthermore, there is simply not enough space in the Grosvenor Museum for exhaustive displays of body after body.

Whatever the precise cause, the Grosvenor is an important example that challenges the assertion that the display of bodies – cremated, inhumed, or otherwise – is necessary for the archaeological narratives to be successfully conveyed for educational and scientific purposes in UK museums. Or to put it another way, one does not have to omit disucssions of death, burial and the afterlife because of a reluctance or inability to display mortuary contexts and human remains.

As well as displays on Roman death and commemoration, there is a video in which an actress plays the mourning wife of a Roman centurian

Today I went into Chester by train and visited the Grosvenor Museum with daughter no. 2 and son no. 1. As well as stuffed birds and art galleries, we dwelt long in the Roman galleries, enjoying the many Roman artefacts on display. The skeleton was present, and popular with my kids, but so were the Roman stones.

Now I am a strong advocate that human remains should remain integral to museum collections and displays and that, without indigenous objections, I would concur with Tiffany Jenkins, Duncan Sayer and others, that we should not rush to omit human remains from display out of a misguided and confused understanding of ethics. Indeed, I have published on the contrary, citing the varied and rich ways in which human remains inform the human story from earliest prehistory to recent times. Still, are themes of death, commemoration and afterlife beliefs only served by sticking skeletons in cabinets? No.

Daughter no. 2 and the Castle Street Wells skeleton

There are many media and many avenues to address human mortality and deathways in modern museums and both advocates and critics of the display of human remains often miss this key point. The Grosvenor Museum, by design or by happenstance, shows us some of the ways in which stories of life and death in the human past can be conveyed without the presence of dead bodies. The lesson is that, outwith the specific ethical issues regarding when, how and why we display human bones and bodies, there is the bigger issue of how we create exciting and informative displays that enrich visitors’ experience and understanding of life and death in the human past.