Discussions of mortality and mortuary practice in museum displays almost always focus on the whys and whethers of displaying human remains. Yet there are a host of other fashions by which mortuary contexts and long-dead archaeologically derived human bodies can be displayed in contemporary museums.
Yesterday, I was visiting Sheffield to give a research seminar at the Department of Archaeology at the University. For those of you who don’t know: I was an undergraduate student at Sheffield in the ’90s and I rarely get a chance to go back. I also spent 3 hours in the morning looking around the Weston Park Museum.
There were so many fabulous displays to see at the Weston Park Museum, although human bodies are no longer on display in – and presumably purposefully removed from – the galleries. My attention was fully focused on the early medieval elements of the exhibition, but I cannot resist celebrating the wonderful models that are still on display.
First up, there was a model of the Neolithic henge monument of Arbor Low. A funerary element is also present: a Bronze Age burial mound is represented as part of the ceremonial monument, augmenting its banks perhaps centuries after its initial construction. I guess this model dates to the early 20th century?
Also in the same display case there was also a cut-away schematic of a Bronze Age burial mound. This includes a cremation urn and a skeleton in a cist, the two principal modes of disposing of the dead that leave traces from the Bronze Age.
The model is itself inspired by one of Llewellyn Jewitt’s illustrations based on Thomas Bateman’s excavations of burial mounds in the Peak District. As such it is a 3D museological rendition of a 2D archaeological illustration. As such, it embodies the past, in the 19th century, reworked for the ?20th century, and now within a 21st-century display case.
The two models are situated in a display case surrounded by traces of late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age artefacts, many from the collections of barrow-digger Thomas Bateman – whose collection was gifted to the Mappin Art Gallery – now the museum. Indeed, the antiquarian origin of the collection facilitates other media by which the archaeologically derived ancient dead are visualised in the museum space in the absence of human remains themselves. For instance, as well as a period-by-period set of cabinets, there is a display about Bateman’s collection. This includes no human bones, but it does include a 19th-century illustration of his museum as originally displayed, with a cabinet full of human skulls at the far end.
Human remains are also represented via the medium of displaying Thomas Bateman’s and his illustrator – Llewellyn Jewitt’s – books. So there is a depiction of Bateman’s collection and pages open from his publications showing prehistoric burial cists. Likewise, Jewitt’s book is open showing a human skull.
A further funerary allusion in the gallery linked explicitly to Bateman is the portrait of the great barrow-knight himself, his right hand resting on a human skull. Thus, mortality is depicted as the focus of his reflections and interests, and a personal concern as he mourned lost relatives. The aristocratic antiquarian is thus both a delver into ancient times and an explorer of the mysteries of death.
And yet finally, there were also traces of miniaturised death in another sense. For while there are no skeletons, for the Bronze Age display at least one urn still contains human remains in the form of the distorted, fragmented and reduced remains of human bodies. So cremated bone can be displayed, unburned human remains cannot!
I will discuss the mortuary artefacts and contexts of the early Anglo-Saxon displays in a future post. Yet from this discussion, as I’ve addressed in print elsewhere, and on this blog, cremated human remains can permeate displays without much critical attention, and even when (as in this case), full-sized skeletons are not incorporated. They constitute the only tangible traces of human bodies within a gallery focused instead on artefacts derived from human burials, but without the bones themselves available for visitors to apprehend.
Moreover, we’ve identified the range of ways by which human remains and mortuary environments are represented in the gallery: through displaying artefacts, and antiquarian materials, the archaeological dead are given some modest visualisation.
For me, the models, like those for Ballateare and Balladoole I’ve discussed at the Manx Museum in Douglas, are an effective and powerful, if now rather dated, medium for communicating mortuary practices and burial environments. More attention should be paid to strategies for miniaturising the dead through models and images in museum contexts.
So, this post is stepping back from the ‘should human remains be displayed’ and ‘how should human remains be displayed’ debates, and simply pointing out how, in an antiquarian-derived collection such as that at Weston Park, we must be attentive to the wide range of ways in which the archaeological dead are displayed via art and other media. In particular, the presence of the cremated dead seems to reach parts of 21st-century collections other human bones cannot reach!