I’m regularly critical of museum displays but also serve as a persistent advocate of their continued importance. In varied and refined ways, the sensitive and contextual display of human remains and mortuary material cultures in museums is especially justifiable when it serves stakeholder interests, holds public benefits, and supports and enhances the academic stories being told.
For instance, in my 2016 paper on the display of the cremated dead in museums, I attempted to evaluate and critique a range of British and Scandinavian museums for how they deployed different solutions to the display of the cremated dead. In my other writings, and on this blog, I’ve done likewise for a range of other museums and a host of different mortuary remains of different dates and provenances. In addition, I’m increasingly sceptical regarding the ‘special status’ of human remains, especially when ‘citations of death and memory’ in the form of mortuary artefacts and materials as well as mortuary contexts, arts, architectures and landscapes should also be given ‘respectful’, contextual and improved ethical displays. In doing so, we help to better explain and engage audiences about the mortuary significance of collections, both in the past and present. Hence I found the recent pair of Grosvenor Museum exhibitions – Dead Normal and Memento Mori – so fascinating.
Having said all that, I’m extremely concerned that there remain stark instances where museums employ a double-standard in displaying the dead, in which pre-Christian remains are displayed in many parts of Europe’s museums, whilst historic-era graves which can be arguably or demonstrably linked to the Christian faith, are afforded the ‘respect’ of reburial, or at least are not displayed. This stark mortuary inconsistency was a key factor which fuelled the indignation of North American indigenous communities and inspired their successful lobbying for reburial and repatriation of ancestral remains held in Western museums: native American remains went into museums, whilst European settlers’ remains would be reburied.
Likewise, in the UK, this disparity in practice has been one of the principal objections of neo-Pagans to the archaeological investigation of prehistoric sites and contexts they perceive as sacred and ancestral. Why, they argue, aren’t prehistoric remains treated the same as Christian-period bodies? Well, there are many museums that do, notably Norton Priory Museum and Gardens. Yet many other museums shy away from displaying any human remains more recent than the Anglo-Saxon period (early medieval period). Certainly, post-medieval bodies are very rarely put on show.
If archaeologists want to believe that the scientific excavation, curation, display and research into mortuary remains is appropriate, necessary, justified and respectful on scientific, educational and other grounds (including the dialogues with mortality it sets up), and tells present-day people about the lives and deaths of past people that might otherwise be lost and forgotten, why is it okay for some and not for others? Why are we differentiating the dead on grounds of their perceived faith at all? This is particularly significant for the Middle Ages – a time of diversity in religious belief and practice and when it isn’t often clear whether we are dealing with ‘pagan’ or ‘Christian’ burial, let alone Jewish or Muslim graves.
Therefore I find those places that choose to display Christian-period human remains in museum contexts especially interesting and revealing.
European museums embody complex stratigraphies of curatorial practice as decisions and strategies shift. Still, I was fascinated to see that while all unwrapped prehistoric and early historic human remains were not displayed from around the world – including Egyptian, Etruscan, Greek and Roman remains, in contrast the galleries displaying Dutch prehistory and history did contain human remains.
In the late summer, I attended a research workshop at Sigtuna, Sweden – an important late Viking and medieval town with a small but wonderful town museum. There are a range of displays regarding the development of the town from the 10th century.
In addition, there were a range of religious artefacts from the medieval layers on display shedding light on life, death and belief in the town.
The townscape itself contains multiple ruined churches and standing churches of medieval date, plus it preserves its medieval street layout.
Dotted about the town there are displayed a range of rune-stones – commemorative monuments of late Viking-period date. In the museum too, there were fragments of Viking-period rune-inscribed stones on display in two locations.
There were also photographs of human remains and their artist’s reconstruction, from the town, with the reconstruction now in a museum in Stockholm.
Most significantly though, there was the mock-up of the upper-half of the grave 12th-century skeleton of a bishop, abbot or abbess on display, with a replica of his/her crozier (the original on display in Stockholm).
Not only is the grave explained in detail in relation to its funerary context and its ecclesiastical and urban context in the museum, but I was struck by the fact that the grave was selected from a wider burial population because of its presumed ecclesiastical high-rank. So an early religious leader – bishop, abbot or abbess – for the town, the grave serve as a founding Christian ‘ancestor’ for the settlement through its singular selection for display.
Another key point is that the grave is displayed west-east, following its original alignment.
A further contextual ‘respect’ shown is that the grave is displayed on-site, although obviously not in situ. In other words, the site of the museum is overlaying the church and its cemetery from whence it came!
So the contextual information for this isolated grave has multiple dimensions, even if the grave is in isolation.
Less apparent is the choice to only display the top-half… Still, this is a fascinating example where Christian-period skeletons are presented to the public in a prominent but small museum.