HHH column: What makes human remains? by Lisa Vanderheyden

The HHH column is a monthly blog in which History, Health & Healing members share their thoughts on research, current affairs, or anything to do with medical history. Each edition is written by a different member – in due time, we hope to offer everybody a chance to publish a contributionThis month, the floor is for Lisa Vanderheyden, PhD candidate at Utrecht University, researching the histories of the foetuses preserved at the Vrolik Museum in Amsterdam. In this column, Lisa reflects on an anatomy exhibition she visited and on why we lend human status to some human materials rather than others.

Lisa Vanderheyden

What makes human remains? 

What happens when you encounter human remains at an exhibition? Do they generate an emotional response? How can anatomical exhibitions treat them with respect? These questions are highly relevant today, and force anatomical museums to rethink their collections – an effort is made to rehumanize their anatomical preparations and rearrange their collections accordingly – as well as their audiences, since more and more anatomical museums are closing their doors to the general public.

In order to rehumanize collections, and implement a respectful treatment accordingly, one first has to determine what makes them human. At first sight, the answer seems easy: the item that indeed came from a human body. At second glance, however, this question is more complex. The newest exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland, Anatomy: A matter of death and life illustrates this perfectly. The exhibition explores the history of anatomical study, from artistic explorations to the Burke and Hare murders. When visiting the exhibition this summer, I learned that the distinction between human remains and – let’s call them – non-human remains, and how they generate a certain treatment, is more complex than materiality alone. Let us discuss two exhibition items I encountered when visiting: a wax model that is treated as a human remain, and a skeleton, which is treated as a non-human object.

The book of the exhibition.

Walking through the dimly lit exhibition one encounters a discreet room, secluded from the flow of the exhibition, making entrance voluntary. Before the entrance hangs a content disclaimer, a warning as to what is to be seen inside: a wax model of a human body. The model depicts a dissected, pregnant woman and is meant to look lifelike. This pinkish skin and red-colored uterus make the model familiar and identifiable. Although it is an artificial model, this resemblance warrants preemptive measures to be taken by the museum for its display.

However, it is not only this familiarity that brought these precautions to life but also its (hi)story: the cast was made directly onto the dissected torso of a pregnant woman by first adding oil onto her, followed by a very thin layer of wet plaster. Although the woman remains unknown, it is this story that humanized her cast. The history and familiarity of the model led to the sensitive treatment of the item.

When you walk out of this secluded room, you pass amongst others a series of coffins, when the exhibition makes a sharp right. Entering the following room, one stumbles upon a skeleton on display. In order to continue throughout the exhibition, you have to pass the skeleton. There is no content warning nor a secluded room for these human remains. Why is this skeleton treated so differently from the model? This skeleton is a perfect example of how a mere human materiality does not automatically generate a sensitive treatment.

The skeleton does not look different from other skeletons. The only thing setting it apart was an inscription of some figures on the skull. Beside it a sign read: “What makes a murderer?” The man I had just encountered was William Burke, the notorious murderer, who together with his accomplices, killed sixteen people in nineteenth-century Scotland, selling their bodies to anatomists to be used for teaching. He was sentenced to death for his crimes in 1829, alongside with a sentence to be dissected and, later on, displayed. Thus his punishment was prolonged even after death. As part of his punishment, his posthumous rights have, until this day, been suspended.

And so the museum had taken more preemptive measures with regard to the model than the skeleton. Why does this skeleton, human in material, not raise questions about its display? Again its (hi)story intervenes: the story dehumanizes, makes it less human, and more of an item. However, if this skeleton was somebody (and not some body), should the human materiality alone not enforce a respectful treatment?

These two exhibition items, and how the museum chose to display them, show that the distinction between human remains and non-human remains, and the way they are treated, is not black and white. The question  is more complex than simply asking if it is  human material or not. Apart from its materiality, it is their familiarity alongside their history, that determine how an item can (and needs to) be treated. Stories can humanify objects and objectify humans. Those stories  can make human-made objects depicting a human body feel more real, more sensitive than an actual human skeleton. The stories behind human remains make them human– or not?

Are you a member of HHH and are you interested in writing a column on a topic of your choice? E-mail us at chiara.lacroix@gmail.com.