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Bones of Contention: The Ethics of Displaying Human Remains in Museums

In the previous article of our Personhood and Personal Objects series, we explored the idea ...

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Museums & ExhibitionsOxfordRace & EmpireResearch & Opinion

Bones of Contention: The Ethics of Displaying Human Remains in Museums

In the previous article of our Personhood and Personal Objects series, we explored the idea ...

return to all posts

Museums & ExhibitionsOxfordRace & EmpireResearch & Opinion

In the previous article of our Personhood and Personal Objects series, we explored the idea of re-embodiment – the act of reminding curators and audiences that they are dealing with deceased humans and their belongings – through the Ashmolean Museum’s display of Powhatan’s Mantle.[1] In this article, we move to an even more tangible and more uncomfortable subject: the ethics of displaying human remains.

The Oxford University museums hold a number of human remains, much like other major public museums in the United Kingdom. These collections are primarily held in the Ashmolean, the Museum of the History of Science, the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and the Pitt Rivers Museum. Noting this, the Gardens, Libraries and Museums division of the university has championed a centralized policy on human remains in its holdings since November 2006.[2] This policy works in conjunction with the procedures regulating claims for the return of cultural objects from the Oxford University Museums.

This policy includes a definition of human remains, their types, an inventory of the university’s collections, the due process for repatriation of remains and an appendix of the criteria that the university will consider in processing these claims. This central guidance holds that human remains within collections are an important resource from a research and education point of view and thus does not give scope for the absolute removal of human remains from museums or research holdings.

Two (Glass) Cases

While the university-wide guidance refers to all kinds of human remains (from pathology slides to mummies to objects made from human bones such as fish hooks) this article has a narrower scope. There can be a separate and valid argument about once-living people being utilized as an academic resource, but the question here is whether there is an ethical way to display human remains. Can dead bodies be in museum cases without disembodiment and objectification?

The university guidance itself notes that although most museum visitors are accustomed to the inclusion of human remains as part of display, case by case de-accessioning remains within the purview of individual museums and is an area of constant review. De-accessioning means the permanent removal of an object from a museum’s collection and could take the form of repatriation or resale, depending on circumstances. Alternatively, objects can be held within the museum but removed from direct display.

Written educational sign in a museum
Info panel at the former display case of the heads

The University of Oxford is an especially decentralized institution. Decisions about holdings, displays, archives and assets are more often than not taken at the balkanized level of colleges, galleries, museums and libraries. Departing from the central guidance discussed earlier, the Pitt Rivers Museum made a decision to remove all human remains from their galleries in July 2020.[3] The Pitt Rivers argued that while initially displays of human remains were reasoned for with the idea of supporting academic arguments, this led to presentations that saw some (often Eastern or Indigenous) civilizations as barbarous while it presented others as advanced and cultured. Their website states:

‘Our audience research has shown that visitors often understood the Museum’s displays of human remains as a testament to other cultures being “savage”, “primitive” or “gruesome”. Rather than enabling our visitors to reach a deeper understanding of each other, the displays reinforced racist stereotypes’

Bearing this in mind, for the Pitt Rivers Museum, the removal of human remains is a clear step forward in decolonizing the museum space. They have made attempts to engage with source communities and repatriate remains. Espoused here is the right of the dead ‘to remain buried’.

One important example concerns the removal of the famous ‘shrunken heads’ or tsantas that came from the Shuar tribe and were acquired between 1884 and 1936. Recently, the management of the Pitt Rivers stated that instead of being educational and providing context about cultural practices, the display of the shrunken heads made them seem like a ‘gory freakshow’ and a gross misrepresentation of Shuar culture and traditions.[4] The museum has additionally stated that they are now working with their Shuar partners to address this situation.

A different display approach is taken by the Ashmolean Museum where in 2011, they opened doors to two new galleries: the Egyptian and Nubian Galleries[5]. One of the most visited museums in Britain outside of London, the Ashmolean Museum features mummies as star attractions. While Britain does not have many direct ties to the Ancient Egyptian civilizations, mummies and relics from the culture are a staple of UK museums. Nonetheless, as Dough Struck states, the ethics of displaying mummies are thorny.[6]

Ancient Egyptian stone carving of a seated ram.
Ram-Sphinx of Amun-Ra, on display in the Egyptian & Nubian galleries

Mummies present the problem of being objectified most explicitly, often being represented through an orientalist lens as relics of an almost mythological civilization (even though the Egyptian history was far from pure storytelling). It is often easy to forget that beyond the casings and ornate coffins and Indiana-Jones-esque posturing, mummies held and displayed in museums are the remains of once-living people who have been brutally displaced from their final resting place.

The Ashmolean Museum tries to remedy this disembodiment to an extent and provides extensive labelling alongside its displays of human remains. The names of the mummies are displayed, reminding visitors of their humanhood; by a female mummy we can find a translation of an offering inscription, which visitors are invited to recite to ensure her food supply in the next world.

Perhaps the most poignant of displays at the museum is the ‘Mummified Child’. The remains of a two-year-old boy who lived and passed away in a Greek community in Hawara in Upper Egypt during the Roman occupation (2nd Century AD).[7] He is displayed next to a glass sculpture based on the scans of his body, made by artist Angela Palmer. Palmer was so moved by the humanness of death and the fact of the child’s separation from his origins, that she travelled to Hawara and brought back sand to rest next to the mummy.

Beyond Optics

Despite the specific conversation regarding the Pitt Rivers tsantas and the Ashmolean mummies, it would not be fair to suggest that the Oxford Museums only hold human remains from Indigenous and other distant civilizations. There are a considerable number of European human remains and skeletal objects from within the UK as well. Beyond Oxford, the British Museum in London has a much visited exhibition of the Lindow Man, a bog body preserved naturally in peat discovered in North West England, dating back to the Iron Age period. Human remains from all geographical backgrounds necessitate a similar, respectful treatment yet the concern remains: whose remains are objectified and accessorized, and which ones retain their personhood?

There are no simple answers to the questions of how and if at all human remains should be displayed in museum spaces. The jury is still out on whether they provide educational context and a deeper understanding of lifetimes gone by or merely a macabre extension of a curiosity cabinet-. Scholars and institutions must respond to this growing debate with detailed checks and balances, pursuing human dignity and cultural sensitivity as a core value.

Written by Azania Imtiaz Khatri-Patel

This is the second part of a three-part series exploring the treatment of human remains and personal possessions in different museums around Oxford: keep an eye out for future instalments coming soon!

Read part one: Inheriting the Mantle: Dedications and Dilemmas in the Ashmolean
Drawing of an egyptian sarcophagus with a suitcase next to it and a return ticket.


[1] McClelland, J., & Cerezo-Román, J. I. (2016). Personhood and re-embodiment in osteological practice. Archaeologists and the dead: Mortuary archaeology in contemporary society, 39-67.

[2] GLaM Oxford. (2006). Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums. Oxford University Gazette, Supplement (2) to no. 4787, 15 November 2006

[3] Pitts Rivers Museum. (2020). Human Remains in the Pitt Rivers Museum. Web page.

[4] Pitt Rivers Museum. (2020). Shrunken Heads. Webpage.

[5] Kennedy, Maev. (2011) Ashmolean returns Ancient Egyptian mummies to public view in £5m show. Webpage.

[6] Struck, Dough. (2021). The Thorny Ethics of Displaying Egyptian Mummies. Atlas Obscura.

[7] Harper, Sarah. (2017). The Mummified Child. Webpage.