This guest blog was written by Katie Hullock, a recent MSc graduate in Human Osteology and member of our “Paper Trails” research community.
Having been immersed in museum culture since an early age, and having a father who feels incredibly passionate about the return of the Elgin Marbles to their rightful home in Athens, I have always had a level of awareness about Britain’s acquisition of artefacts from across the world. However, it wasn’t until I went to university that I started to realise and contemplate the ethical implications connected to the display of artefacts from colonial contexts.
I have just completed my MSc dissertation in Human Osteology, which looked at the ethics surrounding the display of human remains in British museums and universities. A large part of my research looked at the display and use of human remains from overseas, particularly those from ex-colonies. My interest in this topic started when I found out that some of the skeletons used by my university for anatomy teaching were sourced from India when it was under British occupation.
Unsurprisingly, this kind of information only usually arises through word of mouth between staff and students working and studying in university departments which use human remains, such as medical and nursing schools, medical teaching units and archaeology departments. Often, this undocumented exchange of information is passed through academic generations, and is how future generations of academics are informed of this practice. Documentation stating the origin of such specimens is incredibly rare. Sometimes in these cases whereby a skeleton is expected to be of Indian origin, a physical assessment of the characteristics of an individual skull can be undertaken
In my own research, this revelation was uncovered after a considerable amount of questioning, and is by far one of the most poignant discoveries I found in my academic career thus far. To be handling the skeletal remains of people who lived through British colonial oppression, whose post-mortem fate was decided by their oppressors, and who were crudely transported across the world as though they were simply inanimate commodities, was something I will never forget.
Following this discovery, I interviewed a senior lecturer in human osteology, who revealed that historically, the transfer and acquisition of human remains of unknown geographic origin, and of skeletal remains which originate from overseas, was done in a very ad-hoc way. There is little to no documentation of how specimens were acquired, where they originated from and what their intended use was. Private phone calls and exchanges of emails were cited as some ways in which this material was transferred, and it is more than likely that a lot of correspondence has either been lost in the midst of time, or was in the form of in-person verbal communication which has left no visible trace. This makes it particularly difficult to study and evaluate these materials, or to uncover and understand who these people were, where they came from, and ultimately, whether it is ethically viable to store, study and research using such materials.
We also discussed the huge proliferation of the acquisition of this kind of material within university archaeology and anthropology departments in the 1980s and 90s, probably as medical teaching departments started using plastic skeletons more widely. The lecturer stated that this occurred again in the mid-noughties when the Human Tissue Act 2004 was passed. The Act involves any human remains for anatomy and physiology teaching purposes, and its premises are overwhelmingly catered to medical and nursing schools. After its introduction, many human remains in medical schools and anatomy laboratories which were thought to violate its purposes were transferred to archaeology departments.
The current situation regarding the storage, display and study of human remains for teaching purposes in the UK is two-fold. There are an unknown number of skeletons which originate from the Indian subcontinent in university archaeology and anthropology departments. Similarly, there are an indeterminate number of such skeletons which still reside in anatomy departments in universities across the country. In both cases, their future is unknown. There have been no formal, explicit calls for their repatriation back to India, or efforts by British museums and universities to remove them from display.
My experience and the majority of my research looks at the UK. However, through my research I have discovered some more wide-reaching ethical implications within the educational use of human bones, in particular the trade of them. A considerable number of teaching skeletons used in world leading medical schools, including those in Europe and North America, originate from unethical circumstances. This is in part due to universities’ acquisition of human “bone sets,” which were often sourced from developing countries, of which India was a major source. Although export bans commenced in 1985, current evidence still shows a persistent illegal trade in human remains. If you know what to search for, human remains originating in India can be accessed easily on the web. From an ethical viewpoint, the very existence of this trade emanates the idea that human remains from deceased peoples in ex-colonies are somehow disposable, and can be discarded, looted and sold for profit. Additionally, the commodification and commercialisation of these remains strips them of any post-mortem agency or respect.
Ultimately, colonial and looted human remains permeate institutions we study and work in globally, and many of these human remains are still used as teaching materials. This case study is part of a much bigger problem, and merely shines a light on a particularly disturbing component within the legacy of colonisation. It is frankly shocking that such practices continue, but due to its complexity, a simple, unanimous solution is unlikely. Without a clear-cut case for repatriation being put forward, little can be done to resolve this situation.
Perhaps the continued display of such remains in a different context could serve as an educational tool in informing the public about the UK’s violent history of colonialism and the illicit acquisition of human remains from across the globe. There is a strong case for increased funding within archaeology, anthropology and the heritage sector to be directed towards improving the treatment of human remains from overseas and colonial contexts, and also to publicise their history of acquisition, curation and display, and consider the appropriateness of their public display and use as teaching tools. And finally, wherever deemed necessary, facilitate their de-accession and repatriation.
Katie Mariamne Loveday Hullock is a recent Masters’ of Science graduate, whose academic background is in human osteology and biological anthropology, and whose research interests lie primarily in the colonial roots of the discipline, and the violence and exploitation which underpins so much of what we know. She can be found on Twitter @Klhullock1.
Read more about our “Paper Trails” research community here.