in Museum 

 Final Report

Human Remains On Display - Curatorial and
Cultural Concerns

Karin Wiltschke-Schrotta

In 1999, I was awarded a Fellowship in Museum Practice, the purpose of which was to investigate the cultural and curatorial concerns which attend the display of human remains in public museums. My residency in Washington DC was two part, October – November 1999, and April – May 2000. Doug Ubelaker from the Department of Anthropology in the National Museum of Natural History agreed to be my sponsor and offered me a desk in the department, where I was able to closely observe current issues concerning human remains. My interest in this investigation is a natural outgrowth of my work as a member of the scientific staff of the Department of Archaeological Biology and Anthropology at the Natural History Museum of Vienna, where I work with human remains, mainly prehistoric skeletons. In the future I aim to expand my curatorial role within the department and the museum. As part of my increasing involvement in the interpretation of physical anthropology, I regularly present human remains to students and museum visitors.

In retrospect, the amount of time spent on this project seems appropriate. In autumn I had the chance to visit a meeting in nearby in Colonial Williamsburg on the theme "Human remains – Conservation, Retrieval & Analysis" where I got in contact with people from England, Australia, Germany and other American museums, dealing with similar questions.

Back home before the second part of my residency, I had the chance to do more investigations in the Vienna NHM and to visit the Iceman Museum in Italy. I also had time to rethink the aims of the project and to refocus. Returning to the US in spring I presented preliminary results at the Annual Meeting of the physical Anthropologists, where again I got a lot of input from scientific colleagues.

During my time in the department in DC, I became familiar with some of the problems concerning repatriation as well as with the ongoing discussion on creationism—subjects I had not been confronted with before. Specifically, I learned something of the impact the National Museum of the American Indian Act (NMAIA) and the Native American Indian Grave Protection Act (NAGPRA) have had on collections and research. Additionally, by interviewing Terry Snowball and Jim Henry Pepper at the National Museum of the American Indian Resource Center, I was able to gain some insight into the belief system and concerns of native American groups.

Within the past couple of years, the NMNH and the NMAI have each established new offices manage the workload arising from repatriation and associated issues. The two offices deal with the new legislation concerning human remains a bit differently (see their guidelines); obviously, however, the basic attitudes in the two offices are different. I found that the public is generally aware of some repatriation issues. People are sometimes confused, though, as to what is appropriate and what is not, and may have the impression that it is not allowed to show human remains at all. Even so, when I asked them about the mummies, or the displays in the National Museum of Health and Medicine, I sometimes got the answer, "Oh, but that’s different." At the same time, as I will mention later, there are some very successful and popular exhibits which make use of human remains.

Whenever we as curators put human remains on display in a museum, we are faced with the question: How can human remains be displayed in a manner which both respects and reflects their humanity? Further we are confronted with a range of overlapping and often conflicting concerns.

While the primary reason for displaying human remains would be the illustration and documentation of scientific and educational information, it will in another way also attempt to satisfy the natural curiosity of the visiting public, which wishes to know more about its own species. We surely know that human curiosity takes many forms, ranging from the coolly scientific to the frankly morbid. We know too that different cultures, and religious groups within one culture, hold different belief systems related to the human body, both in life and in death, and have different ideas of what it means to treat human remains with proper respect.

The goal of this study was to establish some key questions to be considered and discussed when human remains are to be used in exhibits.

I approached this goal by:

  1. looking at the history of displays using human remains, here in the NMNH, and in Vienna NHM
  2. collecting current opinions in the field, by interviewing curators and museums personal dealing with human remains
  3. looking for different current approaches to the display of human remains chosen in other museums and other  countries.

1) Brief historical overview:

Long before the inception of physical anthropology as a discipline, natural objects, including human remains, were collected and presented to the public in museums. During the 1800’s, expeditions to different parts of the world returned with collections of plants, animals, and cultural objects from "exotic" (i.e., non-Western) parts of the world. Many of today’s major museum collections were founded at this time, with a goal of housing and presenting these burgeoning collections to the public. The National Museum of The Smithsonian Institution opened 1881 in Washington, DC, while the k.k –Hofmuseum in Vienna opened in a new facility in 1889. At that time, museums aimed to exhibit their collections as completely as possible.

The systematic collection of human skulls and cultural artifacts for the purposes of science was begun in the 1870’s in Vienna and in the following decade in Washington DC, at the time when the two cities’ major museum departments of anthropology were founded. The primary goal of the heads of both departments was to build up a systematic and large collection. Display to the public was of secondary importance.

Currently, the department of physical anthropology NMNH in Washington DC has one of the largest collections of skeletons in the world. However, since the creation of the department in 1897, only one major permanent hall on physical anthropology has been mounted in the NMNH 1965,T. D. Stewart’s hall on Human Origin and Variation. Many skeletal elements were chosen to explain topics such as growth, fractures or racial heritage. Some curiosities were shown, too—for example, the longest beard, the mummies and the Soapman.

On the whole, the exhibit was very well accepted; the display was up for almost 26 years. As the new legislation in1989 (NMAI) and 1990 (NAGPRA) came into effect, the human remains of Native American Indians had to be taken off display. Even after replacing most of the bones by other a bones, though, it became apparent that the exhibit was outdated, office space was needed and the decision was made to close it. It is interesting to note that over time, objections to the exhibit arose which were explicitly cultural in nature. The most pressing of these included the need to remove Native American skeletal parts.

As a result of the closure of the hall, in the museum’s presentation of human biology as a whole, an important link is missing between zoology and cultural anthropology. A new plan for exhibiting physical anthropology exists in form of the Vision 2000 paper, but a time frame for realization has yet to be determined.

In comparison the case of Austria Natural history museum in the years before, during and after the Nazi regime is very interesting too. The young scientific discipline of physical anthropology had a similar beginning to that at the SI. But interest rose immensely when it became popular to study population genetics and familial heritage by comparing skeletal evidence. By 1930, physical anthropology became very important in the museum and space was provided for exhibitions. The goal of these displays was to educate the public and to a provide " scientific" basis for the eugenic thinking and the racial hierarchy of the then-current political regime.

From 1978 until 1996, the NHM-Vienna had two physical anthropology halls, one of which focused on human evolution, and the other, on racial differences. This hall too was closed as a result of political and cultural concerns.

Today, these halls are nearly empty. Plans are to reopen the halls in 2001 with a focus on human evolution, but also on questions related to physical anthropology, such as paleopathology, the history of the department’s collections, recent research in the field, and the history of the discipline.

The most compelling observation the historical section of this project has to offer is the extent which the discipline of physical anthropology – explanations concerning what and who we are biologically – have been used for political ends. 

At the NHM-Vienna, in planning any exhibit of human remains, we must always be mindful of associations with the Nazi regime and the way in which physical anthropology was misused at that time to foster and reinforce racist ideology.

Similarly, at the Smithsonian, issues springing from the multicultural population of the country have to be considered carefully in preparing any exhibits which deal with human biology or culture.

2) Current opinion in the field:

Current opinions have been gathered on the question of how to display human remains and the experience of different Smithsonian curators and educators with the preparation of such exhibits. This was done through open interviews. The questions were grouped in four main topics. Because of the extent to which different department members were in agreement, some conclusions seem possible.

Personal experience with exhibits involving human remains.
As permanent exhibition halls have a very long turn over rate, few of the members of the current and interviewed personnel actually developed an exhibit concerning physical anthropology in the Natural History museum. Most, however, have been involved in the planning of future exhibits. Actual future plans depend heavily on funding and on the priority given to such exhibits within the museum. A comprehensive concept has been prepared in form of the Vision 2000 paper.

Past and present exhibits involving human remains in the NMNH.
T.D. Stewarts Hall on physical anthropology was on display for more than 25 years. It was, in the curators and educators’ opinion, a good and very popular hall. Some discussion arose, however, as to certain particulars of the hall. Were the "longest beard," the "soap man" and the mummies only used to draw people into the hall? The exhibit was generally deemed outdated by the time it was taken down in 1991, and office space was needed. However, it is also true that Native Americans had long before lodged complaints concerning the display of American Indian skeletal parts which were subsequently removed. On the other hand, after the exhibit was closed, many visitors inquired about the mummies.

Personal expertise and feelings in dealing with human remains:
The consensus was that, if used in a proper way with a goal of educating people, almost every object could be used in a display. Human remains in form of skulls and skeletons can be used for explaining growth, variation, pathology etc. However, displaying objects merely for their curiosity value should be avoided. The authenticity of the objects is of critical importance, too. As T.D. Stewart noted in 1969, "we should never forget... that museums have the unique function of collecting, preserving and interpreting objects. Words and pictures can be found in books, but objects can be found only in museums. People visit museums to see original objects, not pictures or casts thereof."

Citations: During the interviews some key statements arose which are cited here:

"The National Museum has to represent everybody and if we show favoritism to one group, we are offending another."

"I personally do not have any problems displaying human remains in any regard in a natural history museum. I know this is an issue of many anthropologists – why should people be in a natural history museum together with starfish and minerals. And why is it that is usually third world cultures who end up in a Natural History Museum, rather than all modern humanities."

"I think the ethical issues have changed in almost conflicting directions.

On the one hand – there is the repatriation law that those government institutions and museums have responded to in an open way… almost going out of their way to oblige the issues in the spirit of the law by either avoiding excavations of remains or readily handing them over to representatives of groups. I think that has dramatically affected the acquisition of the collections and the maintenance of all collections. And some of this the public is aware of as there was so much publicity on it. On the other hand — there is also a greater awareness in a part of the public about what science can do, primarily through the forensic arena. There is a lot of public exposure to forensic techniques due to TV-shows like Quincy. Forensics is very popular in the media and the entertainment industry. And along with that comes appreciation for the science people as a part of it."

"Science and scientists always operate in a social environment. And we can only perform research we are allowed to perform. Most of the time there are very few restrictions but you can’t just assume that because there are very few social concerns, you can just ignore them. We have seen this, e.g., with research done on foetuses. Years ago - no problem. Today this would not happen because the social view has changed. People are much more sensitive about that. That illustrates the fact that we operate in a social environment, and we have to be sensitive about that as scientists. To ignore that is not good and there are some things that you just can’t do. It is unfortunate but that’s the way it is."

3) Current approaches

The National Museum of Health and Medicine is situated far from the center of Washington DC. Until 1965, however, the museum was located on the Mall, and a frequent exchange of human remains and ethnological artifacts with the SI was the rule. Today, the museum is connected to the Armed Forces’ Institute of Pathology (AFIP); located on the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the museum does its best to show its collections by presenting thematic exhibits. Recently, a study of visitors’ perceptions of the displays of human anatomy was undertaken here (Barbian and Berndt 1999). Among other results, the researchers found that at a medical museum, visitors place few if any constraints on the display of human remains in the service of educational goals.

In contrast to the general trend within the US, one of the most popular exhibits shown in the Museum of Man, San Diego, was the exhibit "The Mysteries of the Mummies" (1998/99). The closing date was extended twice. After a ceremonial cleansing and blessing of the exhibit by a local Native American tribe, no complaints about exhibiting human remains arose.

Another interesting case is that of the Viking exhibit at the NMNH (2000), where a Danish mass burial has been reconstructed in order to explain the means by which research is conducted and where the data comes from. To my knowledge, there have been no complaints here, either.

Clearly, one of the main questions US exhibition planners have to consider at this point is how to show Native American remains, if this is possible at all.

In Australia, a similar situation has arisen. As is true in the US, indigenous groups in Australia are in the process of claiming the human remains of their ancestors from museums, and in general do not wish to see skeletal remains of their ancestors investigated or put on display. 1987, the state of Victoria signed the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act. This was the first state act which essentially transferred ownership of aboriginal skeletal remains to specific aboriginal communities, and marked the beginning of repatriation of skeletal remains to the relevant communities identified under the Act.

In May 2000 a provocative workshop was held on the topic of "Exhibiting Human Remains." The preliminary consensus was that human remains are tending m ore and more towards becoming the exclusive province of the academy, where, by and large, they can be defused of all power to offend.

The permanent exhibition "Human Mind and Body" will open in the fall at the Museum Victoria, in Melbourne Australia. An investigation was made as it was clear that human remains should be displayed. The end result was: "A museum is a place where visitors expect to see and learn from authentic objects rather than replicas. The display of human tissue and body parts enables the audience to appreciate the intricate detail of the human body and thus influences the way in which we view ourselves and our place in society. The use of real tissue has the added powerful effect that helps connect the visitor with the display: "this display is about me." (Museum Victoria 1999)

The European museum scene seems rather different in comparison. Exhibitions such as: "Botje bij Botje. Menselijke resten in musea." (Kunsthalle Rotterdam 12. Nov. 98 – 10. Jänner 1999), "London Bodies – the changing shape of Londoners from prehistoric times to the present day " (London Museum Oct.1998-Jan.1999); the permanent exhibition and display of the Iceman in Bozen Archäologiemuseum; "La mort n’en saura rien" (Death will know nothing about it, Musée national des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie - 24. January 2000); and finally, the touring exhibit "Körperwelten – Anatomy Art," (Germany, Japan, Austria, Switzerland) have all proved to be very popular and successful—even if (or perhaps because) they often provoke heated public discussion.

Different laws, policies, guidelines and codes on how to deal with human remains have been established by various museums and governmental bodies. In addition to the above-mentioned laws in the US and Australia, scientific communities of ethnographers (Ethnographers Guidelines dealing on the storage, display and handling of human remains), archeologists (WAC-World Archeological Congress Policies, Vermillion Act) and museologists (ICOM, International Council of Museums, codes of ethics) have put together helpful hints as to how to deal with human remains. Progressive museums like the London Museum and the Museum Victoria have set up special guidelines on the handling of human remains during special exhibits.


It is my opinion that it is still possible to show human remains on display in Museums if the following concerns are taken into consideration:

the local cultural situation and the cultural aspects of the object.
the appropriate place to show human remains, like in medical museums, Museums of Natural History, Science Museum, Mausoleums etc – places where the visitors might reasonably expect to encounter human remains.
the establishment of a relevant context for the human remains
the display of the human remains in a manner which is seen as respectful
the background and history of the object (if known) and its presentation to the public
the visitor’s awareness, before heading into the exhibit, that human remains are on display.

Having finished my project in the US I believe I have met my aims even if the output is somewhat different from what had been anticipated. It is not possible to write one guideline for every museum: cultural situations throughout the world are too different. Further, the specific ethical aspects of the question continue to evolve over time. For this reason, my work is best viewed as a documentation of the state of these questions at the turn of the century.

As a physical anthropologist, my plea is for research done on human remains to be understood on its own terms. Results must be presented to the public and a natural history or medical museum is the best context in which the fascinating results of research may be presented to the public. Further, we must consider that if a taboo is put on the investigation, housing and display of human remains, the danger of misuse and improper handling increases enormously; and an enormous branch of science—one which tells us about ourselves, our biology and physical heritage, diseases and growth, one which gives us clues as to our most remote human ancestors—may die. As scientists, we must foster the natural human curiosity to learn more about human beings.

All that I was able to discern within these past of months of research will have a significant impact on my future planning of exhibitions. Further, I will attempt to spread the knowledge derived from this project within our museum and the general scientific community.



I wish to thank Doug Ubelaker from the Department of Anthropology NMNH for willing to be my sponsor and all his helpful hints.

A special thank you to Nancy Fuller, coordinator of the Fellowship in Museum Practice Program, for the friendly reception, cheering me up when I got lost and helping me to realize my ideas.

David Hunt NMNH and Leonore Barbian NMHM for giving me a lot of information. Maggie Dittemore and her collegues Jim Haug and Marie for letting me use their resources and for helping me around.

I am grateful to the Department of Anthropology for offering me a working place and to Doug Owsley, Donald Ortner, Kathleen Gordon, Rick Potts, JoAllyn Archembault, Steve Ousley, Bill Fitzhough and Carolyn Sadler, all staff from NMNH for willing to give me an interview.

Further I want to thank Terry Snowball, Henry. J. Pepper and colleagues from the repatriation office NMAI for introducing me to the believe-systems and the concerns of the American Indian. Rose Tyson (Museum of Man), and Mike Finnegan (KSU) for giving me insight to another Museum respectively University. I am grateful to Helen Ganiaris (Museum of London, England), Michael Westaway and Anna Wholley (Museum Victoria, Australia), Steve A. Rosen (Israel), Angelika Fleckinger (Archäologiemuseum Bozen, Italy) and all my colleagues in Austria, who provided me with a lot of different information on discussions ongoing outside the US.

Finally I have to thank the Smithsonian Women`s committee for supporting the Fellowship in Museum Practice and all the people being involved in the realization of my project.

Further reading:

ICOM Code of Professional Ethics :


The Vermillion Accord on Human Remains:


World Archaeological Congress (WAC) - First Code of Ethics:


The National Museum of the American Indian Act and its Amendment, NMAI-Act:


Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984:


The Museum Ethnographers Group (MEG-Guidelines) has approved guidelines for the storage, display, interpretation and return of human remains in ethnographical collections in UK museums, 1994.

Vermillion Accord, WAC Code of Ethics, MEG Guidelines in:

Southworth Edmund, 1994: A special concern. Museums Journal July 1994. p23-27

Simpson Moira, 1994: Burying the past. Museums Journal July 1994, p28-32

Edson G., eds 1997: Museum Ethics. Routledge, London New, York

Edson G., 1999: Ethics and human remains. ICOM News, Vol 52 Nr.4

Barbian L, Berndt L., 1999: When Your Insides are Out: Museum Visitor Perceptions of Displays of Human Anatomy. Conference Paper – Human remains: Conservation, Retrieval & Analysis. 7-10. November 1999, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Virginia USA.

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