events archive

Human Remains and Morbid Fascination

7:30pm, Friday 2 May 2003, Dorchester Library, The Royal College of Physicians

Human Remains: Objects to study, or ancestors to bury?
Museums have always contained collections of human remains, from ancient mummies to shrunken heads, but now ethical battles rage about ‘who owns the bones’, A OCMS committee looks set to suggest they are sent back to source communities. Are these bones really the property of long distant relatives, or the scholarly responsibility of curators and scientists? Will sending the skeletons back bring healing to abused and spiritually broken peoples? Or are museums and scientific institutions surrendering invaluable artefacts and sacrificing greater knowledge of humanity that we have a responsibility to honour?

Morbid Fascination: The body and death in contemporary culture
Contemporary art seems enraptured with the visceral effect of the physical matter to the body. Gunther Von Hagen’s Body Worlds exhibition attracted millions to view plastinated flesh, and many have volunteered to be part of future exhibitions. While art wallows in flesh, the media debate whether images of the war dead are offensive. At the same time the outcry over retained body parts at Alder Hey shows the public is unhappy about the medical use of their loved ones’ bodies, and there is a slow decline in the donation of body parts to science. It seems while the artistic embrace of the body is welcomed, the scientific gaze causes problems. Why are there such different interpretations of what it means to respect the dead body medically and culturally?