I’ve no expertise in animal ethics, but I come at this from the perspective of a mortuary archaeologist. In a previous post, I posed the question ‘is it ethical to display animals in archaeological collections?’ I discussed the ways in which animals are displayed to illustrate the human story, and queried the stark divide in our ethical practice between human and animal remains. I refused to present a recommendation to the issue, but I did state that:
What I have identified here is a glaring lacuna in our mortuary archaeological debates. Unless, that is, I’ve missed some key discussions. If this latter point is correct, please do enlighten me in the comments below.
I’d like to pick up this discussion once more in relation to my visit last year to the Weston Park Museum, Sheffield. In doing so, I want to extend the frame of references beyond specifically archaeological displays, to consider natural history and social history displays in heritage contexts.
A Cunk View
As a way of pitching the issue, let’s turn to Cunk. Early on during Cunk on Britain episode 1, the presenter brought to the fore the cruelty of displaying animatronic dinosaurs in museums. She introduces a T-Rex which:
‘… is only real dinosaur left in the world which is probably why it’s so angry, spending literally every moment of its life roaring helplessly at passing tourists.’
Subsequently she reflects:
‘People wonder why the dinosaurs became extinct, although it’s hardly surprising they died out, when you see the barbaric conditions their kept in, in zoos such as this one, underfed and starving, some little more than skeletons.’
Ok, this is humour, but it brings centre-stage a real issue. Namely, in museums today, we stuff, pose and construct personalities and narratives around animal remains relating to the natural history of the planet, nation, region or locality, human-animal relations in the past, and sometimes specific dimensions of the animals habits, behaviours and activities. Their roles in past mortuary practice might be part of the story too.
Personally, I find these more disturbing and uncanny than human remains on display. I find stuffed birds and insects particularly upsetting and weird. But does that mean it is unethical in any regard to pose dead things in life-like stances on public display?
Weston Park Museum’s Animals on Display
At Weston Park Museum, when I visited in October 2018, I encountered a range of animals on display in the natural history galleries. First up there were a series of different natural history displays of animals – as skeletons, as menageries of stuffed beasts and birds, and specific extinct species reconstructed based on fossils. Some were afforded prominent individual personalities and presences in the museum. The woolly rhino and the polar bear in particular frame the contrasting links to, and narratives about, the distant and recent past that these posed and positioned beasts perform a role in the museum space. For the polar bear, a named animal becomes an animal-ancestor for the museum – known by generations of visitors and familiar to them. The woolly rhino was, however, my favourite.
In addition, there was a temporary exhibition about the history of the circus in Britain, called ‘Circus: Show of Shows!’. As one might expect, this display included exhibits linked to the history of the circus.
In addition, it extended to consider the various popular culture references to the circus, including films.
Yet to my surprise, the museum’s collections of animal remains were mobilised in this context too: the skeleton of a circus camel, and the stuffed remains of a circus monkey!
To me, there is a tension here that isn’t fully resolved: why are we happy to display animal remains, including named and known individual animals, and not human remains? We clearly care about animal rights as well as human rights, but see merit displaying animals collected and curated from previous generations of the museum for purposes of public education. And this is the point: context matters! Just as with human remains! We display these remains where curators believe the stories being told require them. Their careful recontextualising can transform them from out-dated Victorian maudlin collections of taxa and afford them vibrant stories responding to 21st-century ideas and concerns.
And here’s the lesson about context being all important. The natural history display of stuffed animals can be justified on grounds of education. The circus exhibition can be justified in terms of the history of animal performative use for entertainment and cruelty in circuses, especially as protests against the circus feature as much in the exhibition as the celebration of circuses.
In summary, I’m not saying we shouldn’t display animal remains in museums per se. Yet by asking the question, it makes us reflect on why it is disappointing that while the Weston Park Museum has prominently maintained and adapted its displays of animal remains for a raft of scientific and educational reasons, the museum has joined some others in the UK in removing all human remains from display in its archaeological gallery. I say this not because I feel human remains must always be displayed, and there aren’t alternatives to conveying stories about life and death in the human past, but because it is readily possible to rework traditional exhibitions to make human remains active, emotive and meaningful components of museum exhibitions. Their complete removal is, in my mind, an abdication of not only curatorial authority, but also curatorial imagination. The display of animal remains shows how, in varied contexts from explaining the Ice Age in Britain, to the ethics of circuses, the bodies of dead things can enrich and enhance the stories museums tell. They can also become fond and friendly foci fostering affection for generations of visitors. Neither animal nor human remains should be displayed by default. Neither animal nor human remains should be removed from display as a blanket policy. The ethics lies not in their presence or absence, but in the character and efficacy of their deployment in relation to envisioned goals of particular exhibits.