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Museums over-reacting by hiding mummies and other ancient human remains, says new book

British museums are increasingly over-sensitive about the display of human remains and are hiding them away following demands for greater 'respect' from minority groups such as Pagans, as well as their own staff, a new book reveals.

The new policies to hide ancient human remains away have been implemented despite their popularity with audiences. A recent opinion survey for English Heritage shows that nine tenths of the public are comfortable with displays of human remains which are among the most popular attractions in museums.

Dr Tiffany Jenkins of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) reveals the radical change in museums' policy on ancient human remains, such as Egyptian mummies, skeletons and bog bodies, in her book Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections, published today (Monday October 25)

Among the examples are:

  • Exhibitions used to promote the display of human remains. Now they issue warning signs.
  • The Egypt gallery at Bristol City Museum & Art Gallery has changed their display of Egyptian human remains. Instead of the previous display of mummies in open coffins, it now exhibits the mummies with the lids half closed, which it considers more respectful.
  • The Egypt gallery at Bristol City Museum & Art Gallery has the body of a man curved into a foetal position in a wooden box. This is now displayed in a dark case and visitors can only see it if they press a button to light it.
  • Manchester University Museum covered up the unwrapped mummy of Asru, the partially-wrapped mummy of Khary, and a child mummy with sheets. They were only uncovered after a major public protest.
  • Manchester University Museums' policy requires consultation before displaying human remains - particularly with marginalised communities and faith groups.
  • After consultation with a Pagan group - Honoring the Ancient Dead - Manchester University Museum removed the head of an Iron Age bog body - the skull of Worsley Man - from display.
  • The remains of a boy with rickets were taken off display at the Museum of London.

The book reveals how 17 museums have now drafted policies on human remains, with most advocating that signs are erected to warn visitors in advance. The Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro, for example, puts up warning signs and does not show any images of human remains, other than wrapped mummies, in its online or publicity material.

The Museum of London's policy states: 'As a general principle skeletons will not be on 'open display' but located in such a way as to provide them some "privacy". This might be in a specially partitioned or alcoved part of a gallery.' And that 'The Museum will occasionally use human remains as parts of educational programmes and as parts of pre-arranged public events. In all cases any members of the public, including school children or students, taking part in such programmes will be pre-warned of the use of human remains.' It also says that 'The Museum will normally not allow its holdings of human remains to be photographed or filmed for external media purposes.'

These changes in policy that advocate human remains hidden are taking place despite the fact that exhibitions of human remains in museums are often the most popular and rate highly with visitors. An opinion poll of 1,000 people commissioned by English Heritage, found that around 90per cent said they were comfortable with keeping prehistoric human remains in museums. The public want to see human remains on display.

Even so, eight policies in particular indicate a significant concern about the display of human remains. These state that human remains should be separated from objects in their stores and collections, or that handling by the public should no longer take place, and that researchers should wear gloves when holding them. Policies such the one issued by Leicester City Museums and Galleries says the institution will not allow visitors to handle human remains.

Since the late 1970s human remains in museum collections have been subject to claims and controversies, such as demands for repatriation by indigenous groups who suffered under colonisation, particularly in Australia, North America and Canada.

Dr Jenkins' book shows that claims on dead bodies are not confined to once colonised groups. A group of British Pagans, Honouring the Ancient Dead, formed in 2004 to campaign for reburial and respect for pre-Christian skeletons from the British Isles. And ancient human remains, bog bodies and Egyptian mummies, which have not been requested by any group, have become the focus of campaigns initiated by members of the museum profession, at times removed from display in the name of respect.

Dr Jenkins commented: 'The profession is over-reacting to the claims of small minority groups - such as the Pagan organization Honoring the Ancient Dead. Curiously, the profession do not take into account the feelings of other Pagan groups who advocate the use of human remains in research and display, such as Pagans for Archaeology. This reflects the unease within the sector with researching and displaying human remains.

'Most remarkable of all is that human remains of all ages, and which are not the subject of claims-making by any community group, have become subject to concerns about their handling, display and storage, expressed by influential members of the museum profession.

'This is not driven by public demand, but professional insecurity. Unfortunately it will penalise the millions of people who enjoy learning from the display of human remains. It will also impact detrimentally on the research environment, making it more difficult to study this important material.'

EndsTo contact Dr Jenkins for interview, please call the LSE Press Office on 020 7955 7060 or email jenkins.tiffany@gmail.com For a pdf review copy of the book, please email j.m.bale@lse.ac.uk

Notes to editors

Below are links to the results of some recent surveys regarding opinions on the excavation and treatment of human remains:

Independent survey of public opinion commissioned by English Heritage http://www.babao.org.uk/index/cms-filesystem-action/eh%20opinion_survey_report.pdf

Survey of public opinion conducted by Cambridgeshire Archaeology http://www.babao.org.uk/index/cms-filesystem-action/cambridge%20hsr%20survey.pdf < http://www.babao.org.uk/index/cms-filesystem-action/cambridge%20hrs%20survey.pdf >

Dr Tiffany Jenkins is a visiting fellow at LSE's Law Department. A sociologist, she is involved in research on contested heritage and cultural property.

She is also the arts and society director of the Institute of Ideas, and writes and broadcasts for the national media on the arts and cultural issues. Her book is published by Routledge.

Her personal website is at: http://tiffanyjenkinsinfo.wordpress.com