People or Specimens? What to do with human remains in museums?
Both the academic and ethical dimensions of the treatment of human remains were at the core of discussions at a workshop conducted by the University of Namibia earlier in March. At the end it was resolved to start a public discussion on the often sensitive issue of human remains that are typically part of museum exhibitions, and that may have ended up in the museum’s possession as a result of unethical practices.
The workshop was funded by the Commonwealth Association of Museums and the International Council of Museums. it provided an opportunity to start a conversation in southern Africa to develop guidelines to rehumanise those individuals whose bodies found a place on a shelf as part of a natural history collection.
Not long before the workshop, IZIKO Museums of South Africa identified 160 remains, many collected in the then South West Africa, under circumstances described as unethical.
In a statement released after the workshop, the Museums Association of Namibia said “The collection reflects a particular focus on obtaining bodies from the San and Nama communities as in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, it was believed that these communities would become extinct.”
“However the collection also includes a significant number of human remains from northern Namibia that were collected after Ondjala yekomba (`the famine that swept’) of 1914-1916.”
The association said European museums are also reviewing their collections and have already started returning human remains. The most prominent recent examples have been the return of fifty-five individuals from German museums to Namibia in 2011 and 2014.
Ms Veno Kauaria, the Deputy Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Education, Arts and Culture, set the workshop’s tone by raising some important questions. “How do we decide whether human remains in our collection were obtained ethically? How do we find out whose human remains are in our museums, how old they are and how they got there? What should be the time period after which human remains can be legitimately excavated for research purposes . . . 150 years? 200 years? 1,000 years? When, if ever, might it be justified to display human remains in our museums?”
Keynote speaker, Dr Rudo Sithole, the Secretary General of the African Council of Museums said it would be useful if museums in Africa could collaborate to develop appropriate guidelines to deal with the issue.
A Canadian academic, Ms Page Linner, who is currently doing an internship at the Museums Association of Namibia, has put together a mobile exhibition which will serve as an educational tool for UNAM, together with a dedicated website where the project results are posted.
Caption: The inter-museum delegates who attended a recent workshop in Windhoek where the issues around human remains in museum collections were discussed. The workshop was part of a project to establish guidelines for handling human remains.