English translation added later:

The Symposium “Law, Ethics and the Historical Display of Human Remains”, London 13-14 April 2005 ended with a lively discussion, not least because of my own paper (see below). Is the ‘human remains’-problem an ethical or political problem? 

Original Danish post: Symposiet “Law, Ethics and the Historical Display of Human Remains”, der blev afholdt i London den 13. – 14. april (arrangeret af The Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine) (se også blog-indlæg 16. februar og 18. marts) blev en livlig affære, ikke mindst pga. nedenstående paper. Symposiet kom i høj grad at handle om hvorvidt der faktisk er alvorlige etiske problemer, eller om der primært er tale om politiske problemer. I UK og Tyskland er spørgsmålet om disse etiske/politiske problemer et “hot” emne, som bla. fremgår af den artikel som en af deltagerne, Tiffany Jenkins ved Institute of Ideas, London, skrev til on-line-tidskriften Spiked i forbindelse med udgivelsen af Human Remains Working Group’s rapport om håndteringen af anatomiske mm. samlinger. Hvis HRWG’s rapport får efterfølgere i Danmark kan det få ubehaglige konsekvenser også for vore samlinger. Derfor er diskussionen i høj grad aktuel også for os.

Jeg vedlægger mit paper (først kommer abstractet). Der var en masse powerpoint-billeder til, som jeg ikke kan lægge ud her, men med lidt fantasi …

Thomas Söderqvist (Medical Museion, University of Copenhagen)
“Collecting and displaying bodies and body parts: What’s the problem?”

My point of departure for this paper is that recent museological attitudes towards human bodies and body parts are caught in a paradox. On the one hand, this symposium is an expression of a resistance among some museum professionals against acquiring, keeping and displaying the remains of human bodies and body parts. On the other hand, however, museums are part of a larger culture which has seen the body moving into the center of attention in the last decades. Popular culture is increasingly devoted to the reshaping and manipulation of bodies through work-out and training, body building, extreme sports, piercing and other forms of body art, cosmetic surgery (including “extreme makeover”), etc., and there seems to be a fairly strong popular support for promoting biotechnology for the manufacture and repair of organs and tissues. Why are some museum professionals so skeptical to collecting and displaying human remains when the rest of Western culture seems to be infatuated with bodies and their parts? Why should museums adopt an ethical code for the preservation of human remains when the rest of society is moving rapidly in the direction of a market for spare body parts? I will also discuss the conceptual vagueness of the notion of “human remains” and the contextual nature of the alleged ethical problems involved. To take two extreme cases: there seems to me to be a difference between 1) displaying the remains of a severely abused child for the purpose of forensic entertainment, and 2) collecting DNA-arrays with hybridized mRNA-molecules from unidentifiable individuals for scientific purposes. What is it that makes the first case horrifying and the other unproblematic? In other words, which specific kinds of “human remains” and which kinds of collecting and display contexts tend to be morally questionable?

Oral presentation:
Collecting and displaying bodies and body parts: What’s the problem?

(pic 1)
I’ve got two confessions to make. The first one is that I’ve changed the title of this presentation — from the one that is announced in the programme to this one (“Collecting and displaying bodies and body parts – what’s the problem”). Which leads me to my second confession, namely that — even though I am the director of one of those institutions that harbour “human remains” — and even after having listened to yesterdays’ talks — I am still not sure what problem we are talking about? I will share my confusion with you — and I’ll divide my confusion in three parts (pic 2):

First, I’m somewhat bewildered by the notions of “display” and “human remains” as universal categories. I don’t think we can talk about these notions in general, without specifying what kind of remains, and in which contexts these remains are collected, deposited and displayed.

Second, I’m not entirely convinced that there is any substantial ethical problem involved here. I believe there are political problems involved, and problems concerning institutional image, and (at the bottom line) probably also economic problems — and I belive that all these problems can be serious. But I’m not convinced that they justify us to talk about there being ethical problems. (Whether there is a legal problem, I don’t feel I’m qualified to judge).

Thirdly (and finally), I would like to suggest that if, after all, one wish to talk about the ethics in this context — it would probably be more useful, first to re-frame the discussion in terms of “medical heritage” and “collective medical history” and then to think about the collection and display of remains as the cultivation of historical awareness as a cultural virtue.

So these are the three issues I would like to raise in the discussion today. But first I should perhaps say something about what kind of “human remains” we have at the Medical Museion in Copenhagen.

The Medical Museion is a re-conceptualisation of the former Medical History Museum in Copenhagen (pic 3). The museum was established in 1906 – and in the next 50 years generations of Danish medical doctors contributed to what has become one of the largest medical historical collections in northern Europe – we have something like 100.000 objects, plus some 60.000 photos, some 500 paintings, a medium-sized archive and a 30.000 volumes library. Since the 1940’s the collections have been placed in the old Royal College of Surgeons in the city centre (pic 4, 5, 6, 7). Most of the collections are medical artifacts, like these things (pic 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14).

We are not that very strong on the human remains side. To be sure, we have osteo-pathological collection, that includes 1500 skeletons from medieval leprosaria plus about 1000 examples of different pathological hard tissue conditions. But we only have some 500 hundred wet-tissue specimens, including a very nice collection of deformed foetuses and newborns — plus some dried preparations. We also have some histological preparations for microscopy, plus a lot of teeth, hair, and so on. Most of the human remains are in storage, but some are shown in our public exhibition – we have some 12.000 visitors every year, from medical professionals to school children. I brought some pictures with me to show the variety of things we have on the human remains side (pic 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23) – as you can see we’re not very different from the other institutions that have been presented here.

Since I got the responsibility for this institution five years ago we have changed a lot — and the new name (Medical Museion) is an attempt to signal this change (pic 24). We are a department in the medical faculty, we have a permanent staff of 7 people, and a up-and-down number of phd-students, postdocs and guest researcheers. In other words, we define ourselves as a research department with collections and exhibitions.

The new name also signals a new direction for research-based exhbitions and collections – namely a focus on recent biomedicine – i.e., the last 50 years when medicine has been molecularised and digitalised. So on the collection and exhibition side we are focusing on things like gene sequencers (pic 25), PCR-machines (pic 26), PET-scanners (pic 27) and gene-chips (pic 28) – and so forth. And the reason for this focus on modern biomedicine is simply that it is so extremely abstract, non-sensual, and esoteric – that it is a challenge to the classical idea of a museum as an institution for tangible objects.

I can speak long about the problems of representing recent biomedicine in a museum context, but this meeting is about human remains and ethical problems – so I’ll go back to the three issues I raised before.

Let me begin (pic 29) with the notions of “human remain” and of “display”, which I think, both of them, are too general to be really useful. Whatever problems there may be in collecting, storing and displaying human remains, these problem are very much contingent on what kind of “remains” we are talking about, and the context of the “display”.’

Are we talking about whole bodies, or parts of human bodies? And if we talk about whole bodies — do we mean recently dead and identifiable human beings, like Uncle John, or do we also mean mummies, or bodies from iron age bogs or Swiss glaciers?

If we talk about parts of human bodies — does it make any difference if we store or display a wet-tissue specimen of a heart, or a skull, or a tuft of hair, or teeth? Do they all qualify for the honor of being ethically doubtful?

Finally — is the alleged problem limited to remains that can easily be identified as specifically human — or does it also cover remains like tissue samples that could as well come from a mouse or a worm — in other words, do microgram amounts of tissue from a biopsy, or a saliva sample for a DNA test qualify as a “human remain” for the current discussion?

Similar problems arise with respect to the “display” of such “remains”. Here the context seems to me to be extraordinary important. Who is handling (manipulating/displaying) the “remains”? In what local setting? In which cultural situation? For what purpose? And who are watching them? For what purpose? Are we talking about modern freak-shows, or is there also a problem involved in demonstrating human remains to medical students? There all a myriad of contexts, and cannot see any way of establishing codes of conduct with respect to storage and display under such diverse conditions.

To take two extreme cases: there seems to me to be a difference between 1) displaying the remains of a severely abused child for the purpose of forensic entertainment, and 2) collecting DNA-arrays with hybridized mRNA-molecules from unidentifiable individuals for scientific purposes (the gen chip). Both are human remains. So, what is it that makes the first case horrifying to most people and the other fairly unproblematic?

In other words, I don’t think we have a problem, unless we specify what kind of “human remain” we are talking about and specify the context of “display”.

The second topic I’d like to take up (pic 30) is whether there really is any ethical problem involved here. As I already said, I don’t think there is neither a deontological problem, nor a problem with respect to consequences (utilitarian ethics). And the reason why I think so has to do with the cultural paradox that recent museological attitudes towards human remains have to confront, viz. (as I say in my abstract):

On the one hand there is a concern (as several of the papers in this meeting are an expression of) among some museum professionals about acquiring, keeping and displaying such remains,

But on the other hand, popular culture is obsessed with the reshaping and manipulation of bodies and body parts – think of work-out, body building and extreme sports, think of piercing and other forms of body art, and think of all kinds of cosmetic surgery, like face-lifting, liposuction, bariatric surgery, rhinoplasty, breast augmentation, etc. One of the most popular shows on the ABC network is “Extreme Makeover” where people are taken in to a bodily remake by a variety of professionals, including a “master body sculptor expert”.

And there seems to be a fairly strong popular support for promoting organ transplantation and for biotechnological techniques for the manufacture and repair of organs and tissues — even among fundamentalist Christians, at least as long as fetal stem cells aren’t used.

I have done a small (and statistically not very acceptable) survey of opinions about the ethics involved in displaying human remains — and all my interviews (in Denmark, the U.S. and the UK) point to the same conclusion — that there is really no ethical issue here. When I checked in at my hotel Tuesday night, I explained the the topic of the conference to the person on duty – and her immediate response: “so what’s the problem?” (that’s why I changed the title of my talk).

In fact, I haven’t found any single person outside museum circles who is against the collection and display of body parts, wet-tissues, “babies in pickles”, etc. for general museum use, as long as it is done with reasonably serious intentions. Some think one should draw a limit at the freak-show — like showing the remains of the abused child – but otherwise no one has had ethical objections.

Now, this kind of popular neglect of an ethical problem is, of course, no reason for dismissing it out of hand. The crowd has been wrong before. But the cultural paradox is nevertheless a reminder for the critical mind. Why is it are some museum professionals so concerned about collecting and displaying human remains — when the rest of Western culture seems to be infatuated with bodies and their parts? Why should museums strive to adopt an ethical code for human remains when the rest of society is moving rapidly in the direction of a market for spare body parts, and don’t seem to give a damn about the ethics involved.

My explanation of the paradox is that the present academic discourse on human remains is unduly influenced by moral and religious critics that claim that such objects shall be treated with “special respect”, that they are in some sense “sacred”. (I would like to expand on the argument about why some people believe human bodies are “sacred” in the discussion if someone would like to ask.) And the reason why they have this undue influence is that so far there is no any strong political opinion to balance the criticism.

Compare our situation with that when the Taliban’s blew up the Buddha statues in Afghanistan. They infuriated a whole world against the destruction of historical monuments, because there is a general strong opinion in favor of saving the historical heritage, whether it’s pagan amphitheatres or buddhist statues.

But there is not yet such a strong public opinion to vouch for the medical heritage and the public’s right to see human bodies and body parts. There are no spokespersons for giving deformed foetuses the status of historical heritage – and that is, I believe, why moralist and more or less religiously colored views have so far had the upper hand.

But — to be criticised on moral grounds does not necessarily mean that one has to accept that one has an ethical problem. I choose to understand the moral concern about the collection and display of human remains as a political problem, which — in the case of lack of a political support to balance it — may have economic problems for museum institutions. Such problems are serious enough. But they do not justify us to think that we have any serious ethical problems when we collect and display such remains.

In other words, I believe Robert Jütte when you say that the yellow press raised a row over the collections of human remains in Germany – but I don’t understand why this should result in ethical guidelines. I also noticed that Virginia Hunt said that you were concerned about “21st century political scrutiny” and that you “wanted to avoid activism”. Of course – but that still is no reason for believing that we have an ethical problem. We have a political problem, period.

The way out of this misunderstanding of the ethical, is, I suggest, to re-frame the whole discussion in terms of “medical heritage” or “collective medical memory”. I see human remains are a significant part of the collective medical memory, because, like other medical objects, they can help groups and individuals to orient themselves in the present world of high-tech biomedicine and in the culture of popular manipulation of bodies that I mentioned before.

By actively re-framing the discussion into a “memory” and “heritage” discourse instead of passively accepting to conditions of an ethical and religious discourse, we classify “human remains” as any other museum objects, like historical documents, ancient buildings and remains of artefacts. The fact that some “human remains” sometimes are claimed by different ethnics groups is not an ethical problem, but a political one. The battle over the Kennewick man, for example, is not an ethical battle, but a straightforward political struggle –- it’s a question of identity politics.

So far, I have rejected the idea that there should be any ethical problems involved in the collection and display of “human remains”. I am willing to accept one ethical issue here, however — and that is one which is closely integrated with the notions of “medical heritage” and “collective medical memory”.

Both “heritage” and “collective memory” involve the cultivation of historical awareness — not just the instruction in scholarly historical skills, but also the moulding of the mind and the character of the individual to cope with the present and the future in terms of historical experience.

In other words, the cultivation of historical awareness is about the acquisition of a certain set of virtues. And this is, of course, a classical ethical position which goes all the way back to the Aristotelian notion of ethics as the training and employment of the virtues. In the context of the present discussion, this means that a possible ethical evaluation of the collection and display of human remains should be made with the training of a virtuous character in mind.

Such evaluations can only be made concretely — one has to ask, item for item, situation for situation, whether the collection and display of a specimen may contribute to the one’s cultivation of a historical awareness or not. My guess is that almost all forms of human remains will make positive contributions. Maybe even the display of the abused child — if it is done in a way that makes us contemplate both the evilness that performed it and the pain it produced.

So my political conclusion — and I mean political conclusion, because this is a political discussion — we should not abstain from freely collecting and displaying these objects because we are anxious of the yellow press or scared by potential activists, or seduced by the discourse of political correctness. Whatever ethical problems I may have is between me and God.

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