Human remains and ethics of display

We often ask our visitors if museums should display human remains. The generic response is yes - so long as they are displayed with respect. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the answer is an outright no; with the added comment that the remains should be repatriated (returned to the country of origin). Displacing is viewed as unethical, regardless of time.

The human remains debate, alongside ownership and repatriation remains a topical and contentious issue. For many decades, the mummified head of a Roman girl (dates), and the skull and limbs of an Egyptian general (dates) were on open display. Often viewed with great curiosity, the body parts met with little objection; quite often visitors’ are disappointed not to see a complete mummified body instead.

These 3D objects all come from tombs, directly related to mummification. The two faces may represent the person inside the tomb, but when being excavated they have been removed from the full coffin and are displayed separately. Should they be repatriated? On the bases of these objects you can see where they have been removed from the entire piece, displacing their context.