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The dilemma of displaying corpses Even the dead have a hierarchy of victimhood

A "mummified person". Patrick Landmann/Getty Images

A "mummified person". Patrick Landmann/Getty Images


June 6, 2023   5 mins

The last weeks of Charles Byrne’s life were nightmarish. Known as the Irish Giant, the seven-foot seven-inch man from Ulster had made his way in 1782 to London, where he earned money by exhibiting himself as a freak. By the end of that year tragedy was overtaking him. He was addicted to alcohol and suffered from the painful effects of a pituitary tumour in his brain, the cause of his gigantism. The accrued savings of his 22 years of life — around £700 — had been stolen in a Haymarket pub.

Even in this condition, Byrne was allowed no dignity. The city’s anatomy schools were eager to dissect his body as a scientific prize. Among these circling vultures, none was more determined than the aptly named John Hunter, eminent surgeon, anatomist, and collector of organic specimens both animal and human.

A horrified Byrne had already rejected Hunter’s offer to buy his corpse and, in a final, desperate bid to escape the surgeon’s saws, asked his friends to encase his body in lead and sink it in the English Channel after he died. But Hunter managed to pay for the cadaver to be secretly removed from its coffin and transported to his home in Earl’s Court. There he boiled it down to its bones and reassembled it as a skeleton. “I lately got a tall man,” he hinted to a friend some years after.

The surgeon’s vast collection of pickled creatures and body parts would later become the nucleus of London’s Hunterian Museum. But last month, when the Hunterian reopened after a lengthy closure, the Irish Giant had been tactfully removed from display. After almost 250 years, John Hunter’s flouting of a dying man’s wishes is catching up with him.

There are, of course, many museums that display the remnants of people wrenched from their graves — or of those never allowed to lie down in them. Stories such as Byrne’s raise uncomfortable questions about this practice. When, if ever, do human remains cease to be human? Does the sanctity of death end at the borders of our own culture and era?

These issues have arisen before. Thirty years ago, the South African government demanded the return of Sara Baartman, a Khoisan woman who in the early-19th century was paraded around Europe, only to be dissected after her death and displayed in a Paris museum until the Seventies. But the morality of displaying human remains has become more broadly contentious in recent years.

In 2020, Oxford’s Pitt Rivers museum removed all of its human exhibits, including shrunken heads from Amazonia’s Shuar tribe, claiming that “visitors often understood the Museum’s displays of human remains as a testament to other cultures being ‘savage,’ ‘primitive’ or ‘gruesome,’” which “reinforced racist stereotypes”. Numerous British and American museums have changed their method of displaying Egyptian mummies, an enormous crowd-pleaser, using terms such as “mummified person” in an effort to humanise the objects.

It is striking, then, how proudly the Hunterian Museum now reveals its gruesome contents to the public. It seems Charles Byrne was omitted because, like Sara Baartman, he is a high-profile case, subject to ongoing controversy after the British Medical Journal covered it in 2011. But the museum is still packed with human remains, presented no differently from the countless animal specimens floating eerily in their glass jars. There is row upon row of skulls gathered from numerous continents, pickled brains, warped spines, infant skeletons, cabinets of teeth, all manner of internal organs, and foetuses ranging from nine weeks to full term. It is a truly ghoulish spectacle.

Hunter claimed to have “dissected some thousands” of human corpses. A small number did consent; the Georgian upper classes were warming to the idea of donating their bodies for scientific enquiry. An Archbishop of Canterbury, several military leaders and a serving prime minister (the Marquess of Rockingham) were among those who volunteered for Hunter’s knife.

But the vast majority who ended up in 18th-century anatomy theatres had no say in the matter. Some were wrestled away from their families beneath Tyburn Tree, the gallows in Hyde Park where dozens of criminals were hanged every year. Others were acquired through the bribing of undertakers. Most commonly though, they were stolen from their graves by gangs of professional body snatchers. Hunter himself almost certainly robbed graves in his youth, when he spent 12 years learning the ropes at his brother’s anatomy school.

The grim provenance of Hunter’s collection is addressed only in a brief wall text at the museum. Acknowledging the specimens were gathered “before modern standards of consent”, it states: “We recognise the debt owed to those people… who in life and death have helped to advance medical knowledge.” Why, then, has the display of Egyptian mummies come to be regarded as a sensitive problem, but less so the display of an unborn child probably removed from the womb of a stolen corpse?

One reason is simply that the humanity of the dead only becomes an issue when someone makes it an issue. The controversy over mummies, for instance, reflects a particular convergence of political beliefs: some modern Egyptians, not to mention the modern Egyptian state, are now identifying as descendants of the ancient civilisation on the Nile. At the same time, Western curators have become desperate to distance themselves from the colonial period during which these objects were acquired. By contrast, there are few people in Britain who feel so strongly about scores of impoverished Londoners pulled from their shallow graves in the dead of night.

But there is another important difference. The claim that Hunter’s activities “have helped to advance medical knowledge” is a powerful one, linking his specimens with the achievements of modern medicine. It is also clearly true. Without a legal way to acquire bodies — and with religious beliefs making voluntary dissection unthinkable to many — only stolen corpses could produce the beginnings of the anatomical knowledge that we take for granted today. The museum subtly emphasises this by charting the development of surgery from the early-modern period to our own time: rather dull after the horror show of Hunter’s collection, but that’s the point I suppose.

Charles Byrne’s skeleton might be too controversial to display, but the museum has insisted on keeping it due to its medical value. It helped an American neurosurgeon to identify pituitary gigantism in 1909, and a century later, allowed scientists to find a genetic component in the growth disorder.

What all of this points to is the special status of medical science in Western countries today. Museums and other cultural institutions are increasingly critical of the heritage they embody because, ultimately, they no longer believe it has served a positive purpose that could mitigate the brutality of the past. This goes far beyond the problem of human remains; as Guardian critic Jonathan Jones notes about Tate Britain’s recent guilt-laden rehang: “Maybe it doesn’t want to promote British art, for it seems to disapprove of much of it.” Yet there are not many people arguing that we should abandon the benefits of modern medicine since it, too, has a disturbing history. This is one area where progress is still understood as building on the past rather than overturning it: the only acceptable agenda for healthcare is more and better.

But Hunter’s collection also reveals a deep tension in the way we value medical science. If we consider it dehumanising to display body parts in jars, it is partly because we now struggle to recognise blood and tissue as human. Our technical mastery over biology has led to our alienation from it. Just as we expect our meat to arrive immaculately packaged in the supermarket, carrying no trace of the abattoir, so we banish birth, illness, and death from our everyday lives, consigning them to the clinical world of the hospital. We have never been more preoccupied with the condition of our bodies, yet we don’t like to see those bodies for what they really are.


Wessie du Toit writes about culture, design and ideas. His Substack is The Pathos of Things.

wessiedutoit

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Simon Neale
Simon Neale
10 months ago

Western curators have become desperate to distance themselves from the colonial period during which these objects were acquired. By contrast, there are few people in Britain who feel so strongly about scores of impoverished Londoners pulled from their shallow graves in the dead of night.

If the impoverished Londoners had been anything other than white, we would be inundated with articles about how vile the practice was, and demanding reparation.

William Brand
WB
William Brand
2 months ago
Reply to  Simon Neale

The Christian religion does not require preservation of the original Corpse for resurrection. Many people are unclear about this question. We get a fresh angelic body at resurrection. Otherwise, God would not allow the believers to have their bodies destroyed by fire or decay. It all comes down to the nature of a soul. Is it a quantum field that attaches itself to a new body or a backup disk of a person’s memories that is played back into a fresh body thinking itself to be the original person.

William Brand
William Brand
2 months ago
Reply to  Simon Neale

The Christian religion does not require preservation of the original Corpse for resurrection. Many people are unclear about this question. We get a fresh angelic body at resurrection. Otherwise, God would not allow the believers to have their bodies destroyed by fire or decay. It all comes down to the nature of a soul. Is it a quantum field that attaches itself to a new body or a backup disk of a person’s memories that is played back into a fresh body thinking itself to be the original person.

Simon Neale
SN
Simon Neale
10 months ago

Western curators have become desperate to distance themselves from the colonial period during which these objects were acquired. By contrast, there are few people in Britain who feel so strongly about scores of impoverished Londoners pulled from their shallow graves in the dead of night.

If the impoverished Londoners had been anything other than white, we would be inundated with articles about how vile the practice was, and demanding reparation.

Katharine Eyre
KE
Katharine Eyre
10 months ago

Such an interesting topic!
Back in 2012, I went to Stockholm and visited the stupendous Wasa museum. Besides that awe-inspiring folly of a ship, the exhibition also contains the preserved remains of those who went down with it all those years ago. They are kind of mummified (is that still what you call it if they were preserved under water?) and are still wearing the clothes they had on that day.
As I remember, the corpses are displayed in glass cases on ground level, so it’s possible to peer over them as you would be able to lean over someone in bed. Children were pressing their snotty little noses up against the glass.
Instinctively, I was appalled by this and wondered how it was that the Swedes – a seemingly highly civilised bunch – thought this was a good idea. It seemed like such an indignity.
Then I remembered all the times I’ve looked at Egyptian mummies (for example in the Met in NYC) without being bothered and wondered why the Wasa bodies made me so uncomfortable.
The author is right: we only make it an issue if we want to. Our immediate emotional responses have no rhyme or reason to them and do not stand up to rational scrutiny.

mike otter
mike otter
10 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Not sure if the Swedes “civilisation” is more than a veneer. From what i am told by Swedes and other nationalities who live/work there: The state dictates what you can name your child, marijuana users are treated as mentally ill like gays in the USSR. Attitudes to race are on a par with Britain in the 1950s and the police are as brutal and corrupt as present day Central America – which is why criminal gangs are able to operate with impunity in the larger cities. Still despite this anecdotal evidence they did call Covid right. So maybe they’re right on the other issues – i am deeply sceptical of Anglo societies that laud marijuana whilst wanting to make tobacco illegal. IMO they are as bad as each other for cancer/emphysema etc but tobacco doesn’t seem to affect mental health apart from near term withdrawal.

Last edited 10 months ago by mike otter
mike otter
mike otter
10 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Not sure if the Swedes “civilisation” is more than a veneer. From what i am told by Swedes and other nationalities who live/work there: The state dictates what you can name your child, marijuana users are treated as mentally ill like gays in the USSR. Attitudes to race are on a par with Britain in the 1950s and the police are as brutal and corrupt as present day Central America – which is why criminal gangs are able to operate with impunity in the larger cities. Still despite this anecdotal evidence they did call Covid right. So maybe they’re right on the other issues – i am deeply sceptical of Anglo societies that laud marijuana whilst wanting to make tobacco illegal. IMO they are as bad as each other for cancer/emphysema etc but tobacco doesn’t seem to affect mental health apart from near term withdrawal.

Last edited 10 months ago by mike otter
Katharine Eyre
KE
Katharine Eyre
10 months ago

Such an interesting topic!
Back in 2012, I went to Stockholm and visited the stupendous Wasa museum. Besides that awe-inspiring folly of a ship, the exhibition also contains the preserved remains of those who went down with it all those years ago. They are kind of mummified (is that still what you call it if they were preserved under water?) and are still wearing the clothes they had on that day.
As I remember, the corpses are displayed in glass cases on ground level, so it’s possible to peer over them as you would be able to lean over someone in bed. Children were pressing their snotty little noses up against the glass.
Instinctively, I was appalled by this and wondered how it was that the Swedes – a seemingly highly civilised bunch – thought this was a good idea. It seemed like such an indignity.
Then I remembered all the times I’ve looked at Egyptian mummies (for example in the Met in NYC) without being bothered and wondered why the Wasa bodies made me so uncomfortable.
The author is right: we only make it an issue if we want to. Our immediate emotional responses have no rhyme or reason to them and do not stand up to rational scrutiny.

Peta Seel
Peta Seel
10 months ago

Illegally obtaining bodies for dissection is nothing new. It is believed that Michaelangelo did it regularly which explains the anatomical perfection of his sculptures.
On a more personal level, I visited the Cairo museum some years back including, of course, the hall of mummies. I was fascinated, but it did cross my mind to think what these people, once so powerful and literally considered to be deities, would have thought if they had known that one day their mortal remains which they had gone to so much trouble to keep sacrosanct, would be displayed in glass boxes for tourists to gawp at. My companion had the same thoughts but unlike me, he couldn’t get out of the hall fast enough – it really upset him.

V Solar
V Solar
10 months ago
Reply to  Peta Seel

Yes of course. I had heard about Michaelangelo dissecting cadavers for study. I also remembered the Victorian fashion for commissioning family portraits in the form of Daguerrotypes that included deceased family members, usually children alongside the living. But they did that out of respect for the dead and belief in resurrection I assume.
I have often thought the same thing about those Pharoahs.

V Solar
VS
V Solar
10 months ago
Reply to  Peta Seel

Yes of course. I had heard about Michaelangelo dissecting cadavers for study. I also remembered the Victorian fashion for commissioning family portraits in the form of Daguerrotypes that included deceased family members, usually children alongside the living. But they did that out of respect for the dead and belief in resurrection I assume.
I have often thought the same thing about those Pharoahs.

Peta Seel
PS
Peta Seel
10 months ago

Illegally obtaining bodies for dissection is nothing new. It is believed that Michaelangelo did it regularly which explains the anatomical perfection of his sculptures.
On a more personal level, I visited the Cairo museum some years back including, of course, the hall of mummies. I was fascinated, but it did cross my mind to think what these people, once so powerful and literally considered to be deities, would have thought if they had known that one day their mortal remains which they had gone to so much trouble to keep sacrosanct, would be displayed in glass boxes for tourists to gawp at. My companion had the same thoughts but unlike me, he couldn’t get out of the hall fast enough – it really upset him.

Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
10 months ago

The UK Murder Act of 1751 clearly stipulated that “in no case whatsoever shall the body of any murderer be suffered to be buried”.
The alternative was either Public dissection or hanging in chains.
An early, somewhat high profile example was the hanging and subsequent dissection of Lawrence Shirley, 4th Earl Ferrers in 1760.

Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
10 months ago

The UK Murder Act of 1751 clearly stipulated that “in no case whatsoever shall the body of any murderer be suffered to be buried”.
The alternative was either Public dissection or hanging in chains.
An early, somewhat high profile example was the hanging and subsequent dissection of Lawrence Shirley, 4th Earl Ferrers in 1760.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
10 months ago

Anyone remember Gunther von Hagens and his exhibition in Whitechapel a few years ago?

V Solar
V Solar
10 months ago

Yes! I couldn’t bring myself to go to it. I think it is interesting to reflect on how in the West our relationship to the body has changed over time. I suppose it must have started with Decartes. Now we have transhumanists who refer to their bodies as ‘meat suits’.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
10 months ago
Reply to  V Solar

Girolamo Savonarola is reputed to have described women as “pieces of meat with eyes “.

V Solar
V Solar
10 months ago

OMG! How horrible. Who was he?

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
10 months ago
Reply to  V Solar

A 15th Italian religious ‘nutter’ who briefly sized power in Florence.

He was soon overthrown and burnt at the stake.

Last edited 10 months ago by Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
10 months ago
Reply to  V Solar

A 15th Italian religious ‘nutter’ who briefly sized power in Florence.

He was soon overthrown and burnt at the stake.

Last edited 10 months ago by Charles Stanhope
V Solar
V Solar
10 months ago

Okay just looked him up. An Italian preacher. ‘Pieces of meat with eyes!!!’ Ugh!

V Solar
V Solar
10 months ago

OMG! How horrible. Who was he?

V Solar
V Solar
10 months ago

Okay just looked him up. An Italian preacher. ‘Pieces of meat with eyes!!!’ Ugh!

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
10 months ago
Reply to  V Solar

Girolamo Savonarola is reputed to have described women as “pieces of meat with eyes “.

V Solar
V Solar
10 months ago

Yes! I couldn’t bring myself to go to it. I think it is interesting to reflect on how in the West our relationship to the body has changed over time. I suppose it must have started with Decartes. Now we have transhumanists who refer to their bodies as ‘meat suits’.

Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
10 months ago

Anyone remember Gunther von Hagens and his exhibition in Whitechapel a few years ago?

V Solar
V Solar
10 months ago

The Royal Academy School used to keep plaster casts of flayed corpses some of which were nailed to crosses so that students could make studies of them. Over the years therefore many artists will have produced artworks, including religious paintings and scuptures would have benefitted from this practice. These corpses were said to have belonged to men taken from the gallows.
Oh and I just remembered …Damian Hirst’s self-portrait with a severed head which he arranged to have taken serreptitiously (during the coffee break I think) in a dissection class. Also there was a performance artist call Rick Gibson in the 80s who caused outrage by exhibiting a pair of earrings he’d made out of freeze dried foetuses.

Last edited 10 months ago by V Solar
Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
10 months ago
Reply to  V Solar

Those models are still on display in the corridor linking the Piccadilly and Burlington Street sides of the RA.

V Solar
V Solar
10 months ago
Reply to  Jonathan Nash

Are they? I thought they might have got rid of them. Thanks for filling me in.

V Solar
V Solar
10 months ago
Reply to  Jonathan Nash

Are they? I thought they might have got rid of them. Thanks for filling me in.

Jonathan Nash
JN
Jonathan Nash
10 months ago
Reply to  V Solar

Those models are still on display in the corridor linking the Piccadilly and Burlington Street sides of the RA.

V Solar
V Solar
10 months ago

The Royal Academy School used to keep plaster casts of flayed corpses some of which were nailed to crosses so that students could make studies of them. Over the years therefore many artists will have produced artworks, including religious paintings and scuptures would have benefitted from this practice. These corpses were said to have belonged to men taken from the gallows.
Oh and I just remembered …Damian Hirst’s self-portrait with a severed head which he arranged to have taken serreptitiously (during the coffee break I think) in a dissection class. Also there was a performance artist call Rick Gibson in the 80s who caused outrage by exhibiting a pair of earrings he’d made out of freeze dried foetuses.

Last edited 10 months ago by V Solar
Rob Butler
RB
Rob Butler
10 months ago

I attended Gunther Von Hagens exhibition of plastinated humans in Los Vegas perhaps 15years ago. Nothing could have prepared me for the spectacle: one that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Victorian gothic. I came away feeling unclean. Apparently all the “exhibits” had consented to their bodies being put on display. I’m not so sure that this was “informed” consent. But I think Von Hagens made a lot of cash.

V Solar
VS
V Solar
10 months ago
Reply to  Rob Butler

‘Unclean’, that’s a good way of putting it, I think I would felt the same. I always wondered what sort of person would consent to something like that, but maybe as you imply the consent was not quite what it seemed.

E Wyatt
EW
E Wyatt
10 months ago
Reply to  Rob Butler

I vaguely remember news reports about stolen cadavers (Russian and maybe Chinese).

Alison Wren
Alison Wren
10 months ago

I also remember being shocked by bodies preserved in peat bogs, uncovered by the slicing of peat cutter machines. So old and yet perfectly preserved very macabre. I think maybe we should have trigger warnings so the very sensitive can avoid.

William Brand
WB
William Brand
2 months ago

The Irish giant clearly refused consent to display and dissection. He needs to receive the religious burial he requested. As for the executed criminals their display and posthumous humiliation was part of their punishment as an example to others. Egyptian mummies need to receive plastination and fresh tombs and grave goods as per their religion. Their religion required mumification. Do not assume that it was false. Give them what they wanted.