Exhibiting respect: Investigating ethical practice for the display of human remains in museums

Date created: 
Human remains

Museums have long displayed human remains from archaeological and other contexts to educate the public about human health, spiritual beliefs, and customs, and to encourage reflection about death and dying. However, since the 1950s, repatriation movements and decolonizing dialogues have inspired global discussions about who has the right to retain and display human remains. Subsequent changes in attitude are now reflected in international ethical guidelines and accords that emphasize “respect” for human remains and for originating communities. Most museums will no longer display Indigenous Ancestors, but whether and how to display other human remains presents an unresolved ethical dilemma. Should other archaeological human remains be exhibited without consent? If so, how can they be displayed respectfully? Do visitors wish to see human remains in museums? This dissertation is a pilot study that examined three dimensions of these ethical challenges: 1) how has the display of human remains changed over time—particularly in Anglo-North America and Western Europe?; 2) how does the public in North America feel about the display of human remains?; and 3) how can human remains be displayed “with respect”? I focused on Anglo-North America and Western Europe as instrumental case studies to illuminate these emerging issues due to their accessibility, recent ethical dialogue, and changing museum practices in these regions. My research explored these questions using the principles of New Museology and radical transparency: i.e., proactively engaging the public and encouraging them to participate in ethical decision-making. In this work, I: 1) explore ethical changes and challenges for museums in relation to the display of human remains; 2) facilitate public engagement with ethical discourse about the display of human remains; 3) explore the concept of “respectful display” of human remains; and 4) make recommendations for museum professionals deciding whether to display of human remains. These issues are particularly important as museums strive to decolonize and become more inclusive.

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This thesis may be printed or downloaded for non-commercial research and scholarly purposes. Copyright remains with the author.
George Nicholas
Environment: Department of Archaeology
Thesis type: 
(Thesis) Ph.D.