We frequently discuss and debate the ethics of displaying human remains in museums and online, but is it ethical to display the archaeological remains of long-dead dogs in both real-world and digital environments? If it is ethical and appropriate, is it always so?
In two previous posts, I’ve queried and considered the ethics of displaying animal remains in museums and the archaeological animal dead in particular. First, I explored archaeological collections and the ethical challenges of when and how we display animal remains including articulated skeletal animals in particular, including when recovered from funerary contexts:
Then I took this up specifically in relation to reconstructed extinct animals, stuffed animals, and articulated skeletons from natural history and archaeological collections, using the Weston Park Museum, Sheffield, as a case study:
I made clear my view that this is not a question of putting animals on display or not, but where and when it is appropriate, and the ways in which we do this: what stories and what themes are we discussing and is it done with respect?
The long term and special relationship between humans and dogs (arguably the oldest domesticate) are a key mode of public engagement in the human story. Moreover, our display and treatment of dogs not only pertains to how we display dog remains, but also representations of dogs, dog-related artefacts, sculptures and monuments and dog graves and stories in heritage settings. Consider, for example, dog graves associated with a steam preservation railway at Bala: Steam Dogs. Equally, we might consider the Dunham Massey dog graves as an example of National Trust dog commemoration. Then we have Gelert’s Grave, and the fascinating case of Station Jim in Slough Railway Station. In short, in the archaeology and heritage of death and memory, dogs have a widespread and varied presence.
An increasingly important part of this phenomenon is the digital dimensions of dead dogs and traces of ancient canine lives. First of all, traces as well as bones of long-dead dogs spark the imagination in a way few other past impressions can:
Here’s a Roman dog paw on display at Reading Museum:
We also have to consider digital dogs in which memorials and dog remains are extremely popular, as illustrated by these two tweets:
Dog skeletons, displayed as found or articulated, are a feature of a number of UK museums. Here at Reading Museum is one example:
Likewise, the Lullingstone dog has widespread appeal for both visitors and online (as Sarah Tatham discusses in her 2016 contribution to my book (co-edited with Dr Melanie Giles) Archaeologists and the Dead:
There are also dog mascots for museums with a digital presence:
Likewise, the greyhounds on the Acton Park gates are the icon for Wrexham Museum.
Drawing together dogs on display and their digital presence are some specific striking examples of archaeological dogs I’ve come across. Sadly, I cannot say I’ve visited either in person. These are first, Hatch the Tudor Dog at the Mary Rose. The invaluable role as a ratter on the ship is explained on the website. He was closest to the modern Jack Russell breed. Articulated and displayed, nicknamed and with his own children’s story, Hatch is a relatively benign and fond medium for engaging with the life on the Mary Rose and the violence and tragic death of its crew.
The second is a brand-new addition to the canine archaeological world, both on display and online: Rusty the Iron Age Dog at the Corinium Museum, Cirencester. A relatively recent discovery by Oxford Archaeology on the north-eastern edge of Cirencester in 2008 and dating to c. 400-200 BC, the bones were found articulated in a pit with the remains of a crow. They comprise the remains of a 1-3 year-old male animal whose short life might have been involved in guarding and herding.
After years of careful conservation work, Rusty is now on display as of October 2021 in the Corinium Museum. His nickname was acquired via a competition. This news inspired this post:
First of all, welcome to Rusty, the latest of a growing pack of dogs in museum displays and afforded digital identities!
Second, I find it sad that this archaeological context isn’t reflected in his exhibition and others: Rusty’s corvid pal has not joined him on display. While, I haven’t seen Rusty in person (so maybe he isn’t presented in complete isolation) the broader question is: when we display these remains, do we fully and adequate situate them in context: both in regards to past environments and human societies. Do we also make clear how the remains can be situated in relation to both past and present cares and concerns regarding human-animal relationships? The articulation and display of a hound affords them places in past environments and human societies and affords a distinctive gateway for thinking about not only past human societies and economies, but also religious systems and politics. Dogs on display in museums and digitally is a window onto past ‘houndscapes’.
Third, beyond past and present lifeways involving human-dog relationships, this is certainly a powerful and personalised way of bring human-animal relations to the fore in considering death in the past. Specifically, these canines allow us to reflect on human-animal relations in dying, death, bereavement and commemoration in the past and the present. I certainly see many benefits and positives from this kind of arrangement in engaging visitors of all ages, but removed from the immediate upset and uncanny dimensions of coming face-to-face with the human dead. So these displays, again both in museums and online, create ‘mortuary houndscapes’ for our education and contemplation.
Fourth, is my more critical point. Has this all been thought through adequately? Is this totally all completely ok in ethical terms? I’m convinced that the museums I’ve showcased are not being gratuitous or overtly morbid in the way the bones of old hounds are presented and interpreted, although I wonder if past lifeways and deathways have been fully contextualised for the hounds in question. Yet, not so much Hatch and Rusty’s display in museums, I remain concerned regarding the nicknaming practices – something long past its sell-by date for human remains: I appreciate this shows both fondness and humour, and certainly it is emotive, but is this respectful? Likewise, are the digital personalities created for these ancient canines – again something more than a little problematic in relation to mummies, bog bodies and skeletons of the archaeological human dead – is fully appropriate? These ethical points relate both to the animals themselves and the humans with whom they once lived, as well in relation to contemporary living traditions from a range of cultures and religious faiths who would regard human-canine relationships as more than attributing fake cute names and personalities. Quite simply, if some folks object to the display of the human dead in museums and online as disrespectful and unethical, and specifically on religious or cultural grounds, what about hounds on show via social media and websites as well as at heritage sites and museums? Mascots, icons and canine representations seem fairly innocuous and so the emotive engagements the dead (human and animal) provoke for today’s audiences, but the display of the hounds’ remains, their naming and use as skeletal avatars is something distinctive and challenging in my view. What do you think?