Rebranding Human Remains Education in Museums

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This image is a statement on the unethical circulation of images of human remains. To respect the thousands of individuals on display across museums I will not be posting an image with human remains in view.


Rebranding Human Remains Education in Museums

Museum Studies Intern at Carnegie Museum of Natural History – Spring 2021

When people think of natural history museums some of the first exhibits that come to mind are mummied human remains or as many know them: mummies. I am the first to admit as a child I always gravitated toward the human remains on display, maybe it’s because of the media where we see them often portrayed them as supernatural monsters (looking at you Scooby-Doo), or how they are branded often as the star attraction at a museum. Although I understand why human remains are often one of the reasons people go to museums or visit traveling exhibits, there isn’t enough of a push to educate people and bring up the ethical dilemmas that surround these controversial displays. Having come into this internship knowing this was an area of study I was deeply interested in, my project quickly set out to focus on these issues.

With guidance from my mentor Dr. Jessica Landau, I began doing research and speaking with some of the anthropologists, egyptologists, and educational staff at the museum to learn what educational efforts were already established in the Egyptology hall and more broadly all of the human remains in the museums care. It became clear there wasn’t quite as much as there could be, and more importantly, there wasn’t much specifically targeting children. It is difficult to explain to children something as sensitive as the topic of human remains and death, so I wanted to make an educational tool that parents, teachers, and other caregivers could use to appropriately facilitate a conversation with children about the ethical issues of human remains.

My final piece is a workable educational pamphlet and PDF page that can be printed, put on a website, or used by education staff to approach this topic sensitively in hopes of further conversation. One of the main sections is “Say this NOT that” which focuses on changing the language used when discussing the topic. An example being, “mummified human remains” not “mummy” to try to lessen the objectification of the remains on display and serve as a reminder that what is in front of them is a person who should be given the same respect we would show anyone who has passed. That, along with other sections like “Rules of Respect”, “The Children of Ancient Egypt”, “Let’s take a closer look”, and an FAQ section will hopefully begin that dialogue that is so desperately needed and change how people view the human remains in the museum.

I have further work to complete on my project with the CMNH. I am currently in the process of writing a research paper that dives deeper into the ethics of the display of human remains and what should be done in museums moving forward. My educational work was just the first step in exploring the needs of many museums in this arena Now, museums should put forth an effort to reconsider how human remains are treated and displayed and begin to ask the difficult question: “Is it right to have them on display at all?”

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