The Radicals: Bodies on Display

Please note: this post contains images of human remains.

A desire of preserving the body seems to have prevailed in most countries of the world, futile as it is to term it a preservation, when the noblest parts are immediately sacrificed merely to save the muscles, skin and bone from rottenness. When I was shewn these human petrifications, I shrunk back with disgust and horror. “Ashes to ashes!” thought I — “Dust to dust!” — If this be not dissolution, it is something worse than natural decay. It is treason against humanity, thus to lift up the awful view which would fain hide its weakness.
- Mary Wollstonecraft, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1976, 71)

A great many museums today display human remains as part of their exhibits. From York to New York, these remains are viewed by millions of visitors every year, with relatively few of them thinking twice about this. But should they be so blase about this? Are museums doing enough to make sure they are following the legal requirements of displaying human remains as well as the ethical implications? This is the question that we wish to explore.

The Human Tissue Act

In 2004 the Human Tissue Act was passed. In the pre-Act consultation, it was found that there was “widespread support within the museum sector” (Dept. Culture, Media and Sport, 2004) for guidance to be created on how they might best handle the human remains in their care. During the Act’s passage it was promised that this guidance would indeed be written.

In Section 47 of the published Act several museums were named and given specific legislative guidance. Subsequently the promised wider guidance was published as “Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums. The guidance clearly notes that “Human remains have a unique status within museum collections. They have the potential to make a contribution to the public good….in many instances, they also have a personal, cultural, symbolic, spiritual or religious significance to individuals and, or, groups.” (Dept. Culture, Media and Sport, 2004)

The guidance informs relevant provisions in the Human Tissue Act and clarifies advice on further ethical issues, particularly in familial claims to collected remains. Procedural responsibilities and ethical behaviour are summarised;

  • Rigour
  • Honesty and integrity
  • Sensitivity and cultural understanding
  • Respect for persons and communities
  • Responsible communication, openness and transparency
  • Fairness

The ethical principles of the guidance (and thereby the advised actions of a museum) are summarised;

  • Non-maleficence
  • Respect for diversity of belief
  • Respect for the value of science
  • Solidarity
  • Beneficence

While widely endorsed in use by museums and other organisations (Wellcome Trust, 2005) the DCMS guidance isn’t accepted by all. Sociologist Tiffany Jenkins claims that adherence to the guidance is causing museums to become oversensitive to the demands of minority groups in the issue of displaying remains (Kennedy, 2010). “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” (Jenkins, 2010).

There is far more scope in the procedural guidance than can be covered here. It suffices to concur with the guidance’s statement that collections of human remains “[Place] a special responsibility on those museums that hold them.” (Dept. Culture, Media and Sport, 2004)

But are museums holding to this responsibility? To look deeper into this, we’ll first turn to Bolton Museum, who seems to have employed varying methods for displaying the human remains in their collection.

Bolton Museum

Fig. 1: Bolton Museum mummy (photo by author)

Bolton Museum mixes how it displays human remains. The mummified body in Fig. 1 is prominent and central in the room, hard to not see. Is this alright because the body is covered? Does that remove the connection? Does a body in a mummified context without a coffin evoke less images of death? It doesn’t seem so, so why is this okay to display openly and these remains not okay to display openly (Fig. 2)? Whereas this assemblage of mummified humans remains is in a black case, facing away from the public when you enter the room and instead faces the back wall. At one point button, could be activated for the light to allow you to see more — which is in a way more horrifying because it makes the reveal very sudden.

Fig. 2: Another Bolton Museum mummy (photo by author)

Why is it okay to display wrapped bodies and even coffins openly (even though they represent death) but human remains have been hidden? For Bolton Museum, it seems they have tried to keep a balance of displaying the remains they have in this section, trying not to cause any offence but also provide education. This is reflected in their ‘Human Remains Policy’ (n.d.). A coffin or wrapped body is less ‘horrifying’ in their eyes than an assemblage of human remains at least for the public, even though the animal mummified remains are clear in their display [Fig. 3].

Fig 3: Mummified animals (photo by author)

But what about a place where they are displaying the remains of someone who expressly wished it? Next we turn to University College London, where the complexity of ethical practices behind the display of human remains can be clearly seen in the case study of Jeremy Bentham’s remains.

Jeremy Bentham and University College London

Fig. 4: Jeremy Bentham in life and death (courtesy of wikicommons)

Jeremy Bentham is said to be one of the spiritual founders of the College. His preserved skeleton is dressed in his own clothes, and surmounted by a wax head (Fig. 4). Bentham expressly requested that his body be preserved in this way through his will produced just before his death in 1832. The display cabinet containing his remains was interred at UCL in 1850 and has resided there until the present on public display (UCL, 2017). Bentham’s will stated he wished to be preserved wholly, however in the process of preservation of the body the face lost facial expression and was deemed too ‘unattractive’ for public display and replaced with a wax replica, despite Bentham’s express wishes (UCL, 2017).

Another issue around the display of Bentham at UCL is its positioning within the University. The body is displayed on a plinth over the door through a main thoroughfare in the university, according to the Department of Culture Media and Sport’s code of practice when dealing with human remains many people would be comfortable to view them within a museum setting as part of an accepted idea of museums (DCMS, 2004:20). However the remains are displayed within a university setting and thus the acceptance of potentially seeing human remains does not apply. The body is also against the British Museum’s ethical considerations that visitors should be correctly prepared to prevent people coming across it unawares, being in such a prominent position which is difficult to avoid (DCMS, 2004 :20). While in recent years Bentham’s head has been relocated to a Conservation Safe as it was decided that as ‘human remains’, it was inappropriate to put the head on public exhibition, the body itself still proves an ethical concern (UCL, 2017).

However the greatest indictment of Bentham’s display is the purpose behind its display. UCL give little justification for the body’s public display besides the fact it constitutes a curiosity as a ‘peculiar relic’ (UCL, 2017). The British Museum however recognises human remains should be displayed for their research and educational properties and that ‘there is no justification for the voyeuristic display of human remains simply as objects of curiosity’ which owing to its lack of educational purpose Bentham is, despite it being his personal wish to become such (Fletcher, 2014).

Bentham is an interesting example of someone who wished to be displayed, though it does seem that his wishes are not being respected. But what about someone who expressly wished to not be displayed? Such is the case with Charles Byrne, to whom we next turn.

Charles Byrne and the Hunterian Museum

Fig 5: A sketch of Charles Byrne from the Morning Herald Newspaper, 1872

Charles Byrne lived from 1761–1783, otherwise known as “The Irish Giant”, a man regarded as a curiosity or freak in London in the 1780s. Byrne’s exact height is of some conjecture. Some accounts refer to him as being 8 ft 2 in to 8 ft 4 in tall, but skeletal evidence places him at just over 7 ft 7 in (Fig. 5).

An newspaper article at the time described Byrne as “The wonderful Irish Giant…is the most extraordinary curiosity ever known, or ever heard of in history; and the curious in all countries where he has been shewn, pronounce him to be the finest display of Human nature they ever saw” (Morning Herald Newspaper, 1782).

Byrne was living in London with the surgeon and anatomist John Hunter. Hunter had a reputation for collecting unusual specimens for his private museum, and as Byrne’s health deteriorated due to his condition, he feared that Hunter wanted his body for dissection and display. Byrne had made express arrangements with friends that when he died his body would be sealed in a lead coffin and buried at sea. Sadly, his burial wishes were thwarted and his worst fears realised when John Hunter arranged for Byrne’s cadaver to be snatched on its way to sea. Hunter then reduced Byrne’s corpse to its skeleton and four years later put Byrne’s skeleton on display in his Hunterian Museum, now located in the Royal College of Surgeons (Fig. 6). His skeleton still resides in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London.

Fig. 6: Byrne’s skeleton at the Hunterian Museum

Calls were made in the British Medical Journal by Len Doyal, professor of medical ethics at Queen Mary University, and Thomas Muinzer a law lecturer in the University of Stirling to put an end to the unethical display of Byrne’s skeleton and for the skeleton to be buried at sea, “as Byrne intended for himself”. The article argued that Byrne’s DNA has been taken and can be used in further research but that it was now time to respect Byrne’s burial wishes and attempt to morally rectify what happened to him.

A public poll conducted on the British Medical Journal’s website over December 2011 — January 2012 in response to the article by Doyal and Muinzer offered people the chance to vote on what they thought should happen to Byrne’s remains. The poll’s outcome: was that 55.6% voted for burial at sea; 13.17% for removal from display and being kept for research; and 31.55% for the status quo. At the very least, this is an indication that a large body of opinion has deep reservations about the continued public presentation of Charles Byrne’s skeleton in the museum.

Although this lack of morality was not considered important within the 18th century it is clear that times have changed and with it the understanding of ethics, emotions and compassion and therefore within the 21st century where these factors are considered within most contexts it is clear that this displaying of Byrne is wrong and ethically unsound.

But what about displaying the body of someone who has left no record of how they wished to be buried, who possibly had no choice in their final burial even before archaeologists uncover their remains? What about bodies that, unlike Byrne’s skeleton, are still covered in skin and hair?

Bog Bodies

Bog bodies are an interesting archaeological phenomenon, in that a body which is thousands of years old is preserved in a peat bog. The anaerobic conditions of the bog slow decomposition and instead turn the body into, as Karin Sanders describes it in her book Bodies in the Bog, “leather-like envelopes of preserved skin and hair” (2009, 2). Individuals, known to us only by locative names such as Tollund Man, Grauballe Man, or Windeby Girl, are brought forward to our time in museum displays that force us to look at our ancestors face-to-face. But are we right in doing this?

Fig. 7: Screenshot of Tollund Man, from

No one can deny the emotive resonance of looking into the face of a person who died thousands of years ago, especially a face that looks as if it will wake at any moment. Tollund Man in particular is often given this slumbering quality — indeed, a photograph of his face on the Tollund Man website ( is captioned “like a person sleeping quietly” (see Fig. 7). But this sleeping beauty trait evokes unease as often as it does wonder. Sanders describes a visit to Gottorf Castle in Germany, which displays bog bodies such as Windeby Girl (Fig. 8), and the bulletin board of visitors’ comments and reactions (2009, 184–7). Several questioned the appropriateness of displaying these bodies, calling the exhibit “unkind” and likening it to a zoo for corpses (184). But others say that is useful, helpful even — that “it removes anxiety from death” (184). There is even a drawing from a child who drew the Windeby Girl as a kind of friend, complete with big smile and big hair bow (187).

Fig. 8: Windeby Girl, courtesy of wikicommons

Whether this kind of exhibit is in fact a kind of exploitation of the grotesque or whether this uproar, as was mentioned by Jenkins earlier, merely driven by oversensitive minorities is clearly still a raging debate. But it does raise the question — how sensitive is too sensitive? At what point is it up to the visitor to remove themselves from a situation they find uncomfortable situation and let others enjoy it? This is the very question raised at our next site, the Richard III Experience in York.

Richard III Experience

Upon entering the Richard III Experience, visitors are greeted with a warning sign that human remains are on display. These are not the remains of Richard III however, the “King in the Car Park”, whose remains were uncovered in Leicester and became the subject of much public debate and litigation. Richard has since been reinterred with great ceremony in Leicester Cathedral

Fig. 9: Warning sign at Richard III Experience (photo by author)

This skeleton is that of a medieval soldier killed at the Battle of Towton, in 1461. The warning sign (Fig. 9)is in accordance with the Department of Culture Media and Sport’s Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums, which gives a legal and ethical framework for the treatment of human remains, their curation, care and use and provides guidance for handling claims for their return. This advises that as a general principle, human remains should be displayed in such a way as to avoid people coming across them unawares, such as in a specially partitioned or alcoved part of the gallery. Museum curators should consider how best to prepare visitors to view them respectfully, or to warn those who may not wish to see them at all.

Fig. 10: Skeleton on display at Richard III Experience (photo by author)

The physical layout of the Richard III Experience, located in Monkbar, one of York’s fortified gateways, means that the human remains are located in a prominent position, which visitors must walk past, in order to gain access to the top floor. The remains are displayed respectfully, in a horizontal position, with accompanying interpretation (Fig. 10).

Contrast then, the website for the museum:

“Discover the grisly injuries this soldier obtained when he took part in one of the bloodiest battles in English history, the Battle of Towton.”

“The skeleton shows signs of extensive injuries, from a stab wound in the left foot that shattered bone to cuts on the jaw bone to name a few. Can you find all the wounds on this medieval soldier?”

There is also a time lapse video showing the installation of the skeleton in his current resting place (see Fig. 11).

Fig. 11: Timelapse of skeleton installation, from the Jorvik Group Youtube channel

There is a disparity in the display of the human remains in the museum and in the digital world. Don’t the same policies and guidance apply online? There appears to be a blurring of the principles of respecting the human remains and respecting the audience, there are no warning signs online and the evocative language used does not convey the respect shown in the physicality of the museum.

In writing this post, we acknowledge the irony and even potential hypocrisy of showing the images of these remains, especially with the question of the digital ethics of such displays. But perhaps that only underlines the murkiness of this area of ethical debate: would we have been able to explain these displays with no images and words alone? Would they have had the same impact? These considerations must also be taken into account when discussing the implications of displaying human remains, and that very quandary shows that this debate is far from settled.

Written by: Ashley Fisher, Fiona Gibson, Nathan Bishop, Vivienne Cooling, Luke Towers, and Rachael Nicholson


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