It is perhaps with this in mind, that it was fascinating to stumble across the Mütter Museum, of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and their Save Our Skulls campaign. The Mütter Museum is offering what must be a unique opportunity, to adopt one of the 139 skulls in its collections. The adoption sees ‘careers’ donate $200 annually, which goes towards the ongoing conservation of the collection. Those donating will have their name included in the collection displays.
The collection had originally been compiled by Dr. Joseph Hyrtl, an anatomist who, among other things, used the assemblage to undermine the ‘science’ of phrenology. While the skulls were being collated, scientific inquiry underpinned the collection strategy, and education remained an important motivation in the display of the human remains.
The big ‘however’ in all of this though, is the nature of collection. As was the way of collecting human remains in the nineteenth century, ethical issues were far from being a pressing concern. Work through the catalogue of remains you can ‘adopt’ and it becomes apparent that a significant proportion of the remains displayed are those of criminals who had been executed and people who had commit suicide. It can be stated with total confidence that choice, regarding donation and subsequent display, was not afforded to the individuals represented. In Hyrtl’s own writings, there are some wonderfully macabre notes describing his own looting of graves to supplement his collection. Suffice to say, we would not accept this form of collecting today, so how does that impact on our attitudes towards this historical collection in a contemporary environment?
These questions are tremendously awkward ones to resolve, and perhaps it is surprising how comfortable the College of Physicians are in asking for money for the conservation of what amounts to looted human remains. Were these to be a collection of Aboriginal human remains, we might expect the institution to be more concerned with a hasty face saving return of the remains. But then again, is there anyone left to speak on behalf of those displayed in the Mütter Museum? In many instances the skulls cannot be traced to an individual. In the case of executed criminals, would the stigma associated with the crimes committed deter anyone from coming forward and claiming a connection? If no one can make an ancestral claim, does that negate the scope for any repatriation claims?
This of course does not begin to confront the issue that this is a significant historical archive of scientific research. Does the importance of the collection outweigh any wider ethical concerns that might be had? If a collection of human remains is important enough, should it be kept together, in the manner in which the scientist, archaeologist or museum curator intended it to be, regardless of the way in which it was assembled? Take a glance across the museum community and scientific institutions more generally, and you’ll find there is no consistent answer to these questions, and perhaps this is a major factor in way the questions will not go away.