Simon Stephens

Remains of the day

Simon Stephens, 11.01.2012
Museums Journal: blog
I was given a fascinating tour of the Museum of London’s (MoL) exhibition Dickens and London by curator Alex Werner earlier this week.

One of the subjects that the MoL exhibition addresses is how Charles Dickens unearthed the dark underbelly of the city, exposing the grinding poverty that blighted many people’s lives.

But the MoL’s next big exhibition, Doctors, Dissections and Resurrection Men, will dig even deeper (pun intended) into hidden London.

An excavation by Museum of London Archaeology of a cemetery at the Royal London Hospital in 2006 revealed evidence of a long-running programme of anatomical investigation.

The dig showed that many of those buried in single graves had been dissected, while lots of the coffins contained the multiple remains of men, women and children.

Officially, the cemetery did not exist as dissection was illegal until the 1830s. But the bodies of patients, nurses and servants were among those dissected here.

The dig even revealed how a body snatcher, William Millard, died in jail after failing to convince the authorities that his work was sanctioned by the hospital.

It has echoes of William Burke and William Hare, two Irish immigrants who murdered up to 17 victims in Edinburgh in the 1820s and sold the corpses to provide material for dissection.

And it brings to mind the displays at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh featuring skeletons, hearts and lungs that were collected by Robert Knox, the anatomist who carved up the murder victims provided by Burke and Hare.

The use of human remains in museums is still very much a live issue (again, intended).

The January edition of Museums Journal featured a letter complaining about the display of the skeleton of Charles Byrne, known as the Irish Giant, at the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in London.

The letter argues that “following the return of human remains from UK museums to former colonial territories such as Australia, North America and most recently the Torres Strait Islands isn’t it about time the museum appropriately disposed of the remains of Byrne”.

The response of Hunterian’s director, Sam Alberti, will be in the February edition.

But the letter serves to highlight the way in which the relationship that UK museums holding human remains have with communities overseas has changed in recent years.

Another example would be that representatives of the Torres Strait Islands and Aboriginal Australia have been working at the Natural History Museum since September on projects linked to requests for the return of human remains to their community of origin.

They are here until March and I’m hoping to interview them for a future edition of Museums Journal.

The Dickens and London exhibition points out that the author’s work is charged with death and tragedy, whether it’s the demise of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop or Bill Sikes’s murder of Nancy in Oliver Twist.

Death and the issues surrounding it still fascinate many of us today, which is why the display of human remains, whether it’s Egyptian mummies or Irish giants, will continue to appeal to the public.

But is it possible to do this with the dignity and respect called for in the DCMS Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums?

Simon Stephens is deputy editor of Museums Journal

Previous blog

Closed for business