How and why do we display human remains in museums? This is an ongoing topic of debate between heritage professionals and the public, and I’ve discussed it repeatedly on this blog, including here.
Displaying finds from the largest excavations of a medieval monastic site in Europe, Norton Priory Museum and Gardens, Runcorn, Cheshire, has to face a particular challenge in this regard. Dealing with a single broad time-period, the human remains from the site offer many insights into medieval life and death. The recent re-display of the museum, in the summer of 2016, gave them an opportunity to revaluate their choices regarding the inclusion of human remains and what stories to tell from the bones.
The first point to make is that Norton Priory enables the human remains to be apprehended in context. They are on display at the site of their original interment and as a burial community, speak individually and collectively of the monastery’s significance and functions for medieval death, burial and commemoration.
It is important to emphasise that human remains are only one small fraction of the mortuary material cultures on display. In previous posts, I’ve addressed the sarcophagi in the ruins and the medieval carved stones displayed within the museum as prominent means by which the medieval dead are cited and situated. In other words, we should never reduce the ethical and academic debates over mortuary archaeology’s public engagements to human bones and bodies; there are frequently many other traces of past people and their mortuary and commemorative practices displayed in museums and heritage sites.
The re-display has put more human remains on display than I recall were there previously, with two full-length anatomically arranged skeletons for visitors to see. Furthermore, there is a display of pathological conditions found on the bones at Norton.
There are also facial reconstructions of multiple individuals shown to the public – including one monastic male, one aristocratic lady. There are also ‘portraits’ of other historical personages known to have been interred at the monastic site.
Additionally, through an interactive digital display, more stories about what we can discern from bones, featuring Dr Shirley Curtis-Summers. One can tap on different parts of one skeleton and learn about the different diseases and injuries revealed from the bones.
Most significantly for me is a display that connects one of the two skeletons to a grave-slab and one of the facial reconstructions. The grave-slab is positioned below, rather than above, for obvious reasons of weight and safety. Moreover, the aforementioned interactive display focuses on this skeleton.
One down-side is that the previous decision to display a skeleton within a sarcophagus has been revoked. This is disappointing, since while somewhat contrived, this served to explicitly connect a skeleton to the stone coffins, and thus helped explain and inform the significance of all the other sarcophagi on display among the abbey ruins.
As well as these individual dimensions to the display of human remains, it is important to note these mortuary traces – bones, skeletons, facial reconstructions and grave-slabs, sarcophagi and headstones – operate in relation to each other. Together, they afford many dimensions by which visitors can engage with life and death in the Middle Ages and ascertain connections between these media.
Incidentally, I took a photograph of my daughter at Norton Priory in 2012 looking at the skeleton on display in a sarcophagus. Subsequently, the museum generously allowed for the use of the image as the front cover of my latest book – Archaeologists and the Dead – co-edited with Dr Melanie Giles. It was interesting to create an ‘update’ photograph of Jemimah with one of the new re-displayed skeletons.
To conclude: Norton Priory’s decisions about whether to display human remains, and how to display them, are contextual to the site and its archaeological history. Moreover, they cannot be appreciated in relation to the stories told about the bones themselves, but in terms of their role as part of a broader range of memorial and mortuary material cultures displayed.