Human Remains Curatorship: Ethical or Academic?


03 Oct 2016 19 Dec 2016

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Biological objections are always easily evoked the public concern of ethical issue, especially in human remains. And therefore, museum professionals should treat human remains differently and carefully in curation.

The public awareness of ethics is changing from time to time. In the past, audiences did not response the concerns of human remains’ that are exhibited in museums, either with the human bones or an open coffin of Egyptian mummies. In 1998, there was no public comment was made for displaying the human remains of a medieval mother and child in Museum of London, and no one disagreed that a museum curator displays human remains in a glass case would had a problem or would be invidious (Swain, 2002). So how do the museum professionals handle human remains exhibitions?

Controversial topic of human remains display in UK museums

The collections of human remains in museums were becoming sensitive topics over the last thirty years beginning from Western countries (Jenkins, 2003). Museums in Australia and the North America began to response to the repatriation demands about a decade ago, which was given a pressure in the UK or any other western countries to debate this topic sincerely (Appleton, 2002). The focus of ethical concern on human remains is mainly associated with indigenous groups and social changes (Jenkins, 2011).

London Bodies exhibition

The Museum of London performed London Bodies exhibition in October 1998 to February 1999 (Swain, 2002). The aim of this exhibition was tracing the change of appearance of Londoners since prehistoric times by presented archaeological evidence from human skeletal remains which was drawn upon a very large collection about 18,000 human skeletons (Swain, 2002).

The design of London Bodies exhibition was involved a diverse team of specialists including osteologists, curators, designers, press, PR staff and conservators, and also a team of external consultants (Swain, 2002). The exhibition team took careful decisions on how to balance the respect for the human remains and the motivations for the exhibition as well as the display approach (Curtis, 2003).

The team put up three very clear warnings outside to ensure people noticed the warning before entering to the exhibition and did not allow children and school parties went into the exhibition without accompanying adults (Swain, 2002).

Swain quoted a viewpoint from Parker Pearson’s paper “Ethics and the dead in British archaeology” that British responses to dead bodies are ambivalent, contradictory and inconsistent and is related to the way how the human remains are treated (Swain, 2002). Swain mentioned the views of London Bodies were conflict. Some of the views from university archaeologists were negative who had have experience of working in North America or Australia where the cultural background of native people believe the disturbance of the dead is unacceptable and unethical (Swain, 2002) but Swain argued that people should not just follow a single set of standards for all human remains display with different cultural background (Swain, 2002). The visitor comments of London Bodies were mostly positive which was given a supporting figure to show that London society did not have a big problem with the display of human remains in an exhibition (Curtis, 2003).

The Lindow Man exhibition at Manchester Museum

A 2,000 year old man at Lindow Moss near Wilmslow, Manchester, UK was discovered in 1984 who had suffered a violent death (Sitch, 2008). This discovery was provided precious evidence to archaeologists and forensic scientists about the life of people during the late Iron Age and early Roman period (Sitch, 2008).

The recent exhibition of Lindow Man a Bog Body Mystery in The Manchester Museum was exhibited in April 2008 to April 2009. This was not the first time exhibition of Lindow Man at The Manchester Museum. Therefore, eight specially-selected contributors proposed new interpretations of Lindow Man in order to explore different meanings to different people (Sitch, 2008). The museum adopted a polyvocal approach aiming to increase sensitivity towards human remains within society more generally by putting alongside of a selection of some the finest Iron Age artefacts and personal items from the British Museum and the Manchester Museum collections, as well as speaker’s testimony from interviews. (Sitch, 2008).

However, the polyvocal approach of displaying Lindow Man was aroused unexpected controversy (Sitch, 2008). Some visitors were confused by the polyvocal approach, they did not understand what the museum wanted to express and some visitors were disappointed of the innovative design and expressed that the innovative design was an insult to the ancient dead body (Sitch, 2008).

Stich concluded the experience of Lindow Man a Bog Body Mystery exhibition has brought some important lessons to the museum that is good for future reference on how to curate human remains. Importance of public consultation and design review at the development process should be involved in planning an exhibition of human remains even though the academic response of this exhibition was widely favorable (Sitch, 2008).

Commercial human body exhibitions

Apart from the museum exhibitions of human remains, there is commercial human body exhibitions were emerged since the late 1990s. The original and famous human body exhibition is Body Worlds.

Body Worlds is the original commercial travelling exhibitions of real human bodies round the world which is formed by a German anatomist - Gunther von Hagens.

Gunther von Hagnes claimed that the primary mission of Body Worlds exhibition is health education, leading public audiences to have a better understanding of their bodies and awareness of better health (Institute for Plastination, 2006-2014). With displaying a numbers of real human specimens by his own preservation technique called plastination, including whole-body plastinates as well as individual organs, organ systems and transparent body slices in every single exhibition (Institute for Plastination, 2006-2014).

In addition to displaying body plastinates and organs, Body Worlds exhibition does also present some usual health information in an easily understood manner such as displaying healthy and unhealthy organs side by side for audiences to observe the difference (Institute for Plastination, 2006-2014). They show a smoker lung alongside with a non-smoker lung to show the difference between two organs in order to passing a message of healthy life. They also demonstrate the structure of artificial knee and hip joints to let the audiences to observe their function (Institute for Plastination, 2006-2014).

Art or Science?

Unlikely traditional human remains exhibitions in museums, the presentation of body plastinates in Body Worlds is diversified, in between art and science. The plastinated exhibits not only to show the structure of human body through various forms of anatomical presentation, from exhibiting whole-body plasinates to organs specimen in glass cases and body slices, but also make use of resilience of plastinated bodies to show the different posture of human activities such as dancing, running...etc. and also mimic some classical pose in famous movie such as Titanic Couple.

Admittedly, the presentation of plastinated bodies in “artistic” way can reduce the fear of real human dead bodies displaying in front of the public and strengthen the interaction of the audiences and plastinated specimens, but also lead audiences generate an illusion that the specimen in the Body Worlds exhibition are kinds of art.

I criticise the presentation approach of Body Worlds is contradicted to the primary mission of the exhibition which emphasizes health education and science. Referring to the visitor comments from Body Worlds official websites and other public discussion boards, the visitor comments of Body Worlds are two poles but more on positive side. Positive comments are mostly focus on the displaying approach of specimens which is amazing art but do not get much information on health, while negative comments are concerning human bodies are commercialized and are not be respected.

In 2011, Body Worlds & the Cycle of Life was held in National Taiwan Science Education Center Museum Exhibitions. The aim of this exhibition was “educate the public about the beauty and fragility of the body, while The Cycle of Life focuses on the process of aging” (Lin, 2011). However, some Taiwanese scholars argued that the whole presentation is an art, public cannot learn anything about human body or receive any health messages from this exhibition, only with very simple explanation text on each specimen. “It is not a science education…..they emphasize education is just for hyping topic for earning admission fees by attracting more visitors” commented by a Taiwanese professor of Medicine who was involved in Body Worlds Taipei exhibition in 2011 (Kuo, 2012).

Another issue that was debated before the grand opening of Body Worlds & the Cycle of Life at Taipei in 2011 was the two sets of sexual plastinated specimens, which were planning to be displayed in the show. These two sets of sexual plastinated specimens were sparked controversy (Kuo, 2012). The debate was polarized, the supporting side argued that the exhibition is prohibited for age under 18 entry so there is no harm for displaying something about sex; the opponents refuted is the sexual display is only a gimmick and questioned is there something inside so called “education” of the sexual display? At the end of the discussion, the two sets of sexual plastinated specimens finally did not present in the exhibition (Kuo, 2012).


Photo 1) a plastinated exhibit in Body Worlds & the Cycle of Life, Taipei, 2011

The photo is downloaded from National Taiwan Science Education Center official website

The founder of Body Worlds, Gunther von Hagens, who was born in East German and was in two years imprisonment by East German authorities for political reasons (Institute for Plastination, 2006-2014). His identity evokes the public sensible emotion of which to connect the horrible human experiments at East German in WWII (Kuo, 2012). Moreover, a rumor about the source of plastinated bodies aroused suspicion and controversy.

Question of bodies’ source?

There was a pregnant woman plastinated body exhibited in the show of Body Worlds & the Cycle of Life in Asia. This plastinated specimen touched off a rumor in China regarding to the political struggle in Communist Party of China. This rumor also raised up a concern on human corpse source in human body shows around the world.

Photo 2) Chinese pregnant woman at Body Worlds

The photo is downloaded from

The Chinese public suspected the young pregnant woman plastinated exhibit with mature fetus in the current Body Worlds show might belong to Zhang Weijie, a former mistress of the disgraced politician Bo Xilai who went missing (Staff Reporter , 2012). Zhang Weijie was a well-known news reporter of Dalian Television. People pointed out that the skull shape of pregnant woman exhibit looks like Zhang and the near mature embryo inside the body is not possible to be the result of an abortion (Staff Reporter , 2012).

Some suspect that Gunther von Hagens had a special connection with Bo Xilai and therefore his had been set up his largest human body plastination factory in Dalian because Dalian government does not have any laws against the processing and exporting of corpses when Von Hagens was keeping a special relationship with the mayor of Dalian, Bo Xilai (Staff Reporter , 2012). There is another rumor that Dalian factory has been closed down since Bo Xilai has experienced his dramatic downfall in 2013.  

In 2008, ABC news reported a secret trade in Chines bodies which rose up a concern on the source of Chinese bodies was come from executed prisoners without consent (Ross, Brian; Schwartz, Rhonda; Schecter, Anna;, 2008). In an interview on the ABC News program "20/20” with Von Hagnes, he dined all accusation and claimed that all Chinese bodies were given to him by a medical school in China to plastinate for teaching models and he emphasized in the interview all Chinese bodies have never put on public display and the bodies from overseas were given by donors (Ross, Brian; Schwartz, Rhonda; Schecter, Anna;, 2008).

Public concerns on ethical issues

Other than the controversy of the source of fresh corpses, the human “artwork” in Body Worlds triggers a different moral stance on social and personal disputes. The dynamic expressions and body vocabulary, death seems to have become lyrical and poetic. The moral nature of death is expelled by art expressions triggers a discussion of human body whether or not should be treated in this way. Under the aura of health education in science and aesthetics, it is filled with the smell of commerce with rendering promotional strategy (Kuo, 2012).

Referring to Body Worlds official website, human plastinated specimens are available on purchase (Institute for Plastination, 2006-2014). Although the company emphasizes the trade is only limited to “qualified users”, this activity commercialise human specimens which are claimed to be collected by donors. Is this commercial trading activity has betrayed the original intention of donors?

Although the exhibitions of plastinated bodies are controversial, a numbers of companies have been involved in the hugely profitable shows since the late 1990s (Schwatrz, 2010).


“Human remains can reveal information about historic patterns of migration, lifestyle and disease” said by Tiffany Jenkins (Jenkins, 2003). Issues concerning the legally state of body sources and ethical controversy about the use of human remains for public exhibitions have been emerged in museums, cultural authorities and commercial exhibition companies. Museums should take into consideration of different factors such as design, interpretation, management, knowledge and morality when planning new exhibitions regarding human remains.

Public response to human remains exhibitions was mixed. Comparing to the case study of The London Bodies in The Museum of London and Lindow Man in The Museum of Manchester, museum audiences tend to accept the traditional approach of exhibiting human remains which is solemn, respectful, carefully treated and imitate the traditional burial mode. Conversely, museum audiences, especially those conservative visitors, dislike innovative approach exhibition of human remains. Innovative is easily to connected to dishonor, disgrace, affront and unethical. However, the interesting point from above stories is that visitors did not feel more antipathetic to Body Worlds exhibitions that allowed audiences to have a close contact with plastinated human remains which are made by fresh corpses, than The London Bodies exhibition in The Museum of London and Lindow Man exhibition with polyvocal approach in The Manchester museum.

Although most people expect to see human remains in museums, with changing attitudes towards human remains in society, museum professionals need to re-examine the display and treatment of human remains (Jenkins, 2011). However, the dividing line between acceptance and unacceptance is difficult to define. This is a struggle between public morals and academic studies. Jenkins argued that it is very dangerous if the dividing line is inclined towards the moral side, since human remains provide valuable material memory of past people and past times regarding human evidence, and benefit for today society such as informing changes in dental, surgical and medical practice (Jenkins, 2003). On the other hand, if we only emphasis on academic studies or education without considering ethical issues, such as the concern of the commercialise issue of human remains in Body Worlds, it will be dangerous too.

Whatever the dividing line is inclined on either one side could result a profound impact. Therefore, balancing ethical concerns and academic studies may be a key for curating human remains. But what is an appropriate exhibition of human remains? There is no certain answer as the public reaction is emotional and is changed by social values. This question would always be haunted museum curators.


Anon., 2011. Dr. Gunther von Hagens, Body Plastination at Body Worlds.. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 23 3 2014].

Anon., 2011. National Taiwan Science Education Center. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 24 3 2014].

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Curtis, N., 2003. Human remains: the sacred, museums and archaeology. Public Archaeology Vol. 3, pp. 21-32.

Institute for Plastination, 2006-2014. Body Worlds. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 22 3 2014].

Jenkins, T., 2003. Burying the evidence. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 15 3 2014].

Jenkins, T., 2011. Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections: the contribution of a crisis of cultural authority. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 13 3 2014].

Kuo, J.-K., 2012. Corporality and Boundary-work: Museum Exhibitions of Real Human Bodies in Taiwan. Taiwan Museology Quarterly Vol. 26(3), 19 7, pp. 7-20.

Lin, K., 2011. Highlight: Body Worlds & The Cycle of Life. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 22 3 2014].

Ross, Brian; Schwartz, Rhonda; Schecter, Anna;, 2008. Exclusive: Secret Trade in Chinese Bodies. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 22 3 2014].

Sitch, B., 2008. Courting controversy - the Lindow Man exhibition at the Manchester Museum. UMAC Journal, 16th-20th 9.

Staff Reporter , 2012. Netizens suggest Bo Xilai's former mistress on display in Body Worlds. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 23 3 2014].

Swain, H., 2002. The ethics of displaying human remains from British archaeological sites. Public Archaeology Vol. 2 , pp. 95-100.



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