Tom Flynn

The sacred in secular societies

Tom Flynn on the international controversy about the repatriation of human remains

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Those nations and cultural groups lobbying Western museums for the restitution of cultural property acquired during the colonial period are accustomed to having their requests denied on the grounds that modern museums should not be required to atone for historical contingencies. A recent declaration by a group of leading international museum directors phrased it like this: 'The objects and monumental works that were installed decades and even centuries ago in museums throughout Europe and America were acquired under conditions that are not comparable with current ones.' In other words, that was then, this is now.

This simple appeal to an unwritten statute of limitations on illicitly acquired material is about to run into new obstacles as the question of human remains returns to the top of the cultural agenda. The increasingly frequent requests by Aboriginal groups for the return of human remains 'harvested' during the colonial period and subsequently absorbed into UK museum collections led to the establishment by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) in May 2001 of the Working Group on Human Remains, which will make its initial recommendations to ministers in the coming weeks.

The issue of human remains in UK museums was already embattled cultural territory, but it has been lent unexpected emphasis by the recent news that British doctors and morticians removed at least 20,000 brains for research between 1970 and 1999 without seeking the consent of the families concerned. Just as in the colonial period, the human organs were retained for scientific research, and in most cases matters of faith and cultural belief were ignored. In the current controversy, one woman discovered that her late husband's brain had been removed without permission and she was therefore unable to bury him intact in accordance with the couple's Jewish faith. Similarly, Aboriginal groups point to a belief system that requires bodies of the deceased to be returned to their ancestral lands.

The Working Group on Human Remains was set up by the DCMS with a brief to examine the current legal status of human remains held within the collections of publicly funded museums and galleries in the United Kingdom. The Natural History Museum has a collection of 20,000 human samples, around half of which are of Australian Aboriginal origin, while Cambridge University has around 18,000 specimens.

The Working Group, chaired by Professor Norman Palmer, is expected to recommend limited repatriation of some human material, such as hair, teeth and bones, held in British institutions. While such recommendations will be welcomed by indigenous Australians and Americans who claim such collections were unethically appropriated during the colonial period, they will be roundly condemned by forensic scientists and evolutionary anthropologists who maintain that the remains represent rare and precious evidence of human origins.

Cultural heritage controversies are becoming increasingly impassioned affairs, invariably dividing those with a lingering belief in an Enlightenment ideal of 'universal' knowledge arising from a Western wellspring of scientific rationalism, from those who identify with a post-colonial world which constructs its identity in opposition to Western intellectual models. Debates around material culture have always exposed the differences between these conflicting world views, but the argument over the future of human remains dramatises the epistemological divide arguably more than any other.

In his 1986 essay 'The Cultural Biography of Things', Igor Kopytoff compared the value systems of pre-colonial, non-commercial social groups with those of complex, commoditised societies. 'In contemporary Western thought,' writes Kopytoff, 'we take it more or less for granted that things – physical objects and rights to them – represent the natural universe of commodities. At the opposite pole we place people, who represent the natural universe of individuation and singularisation.' The retention of identifiable human remains in modern museum collections effectively collapses these distinctions and consigns such material – along with illegally removed organs on the international black market – to the natural universe of commodities.

To acknowledge the 'sacred' status afforded to ancestral remains within Aboriginal culture is not to romanticise those cultures, but rather to recognise the value of their difference compared to a Western model that chooses to prioritise the scientific value of human remains. Museums have traditionally owed much of their special social value to their position beyond the sphere of exchange. Hence the objects in museum collections are seemingly cordoned off from the market forces that would otherwise render them commodities. In reality, however, the fiscal pressures on modern museums to utilise the content of their collections in manifold commercial ways effectively annuls any claims to a rarefied, de-commoditised status. Every object in every museum collection is in some sense embedded within an exchange economy whose reach extends into everything from the merchandising of replicas and spin-offs to provision of educational resources, to the commercial applications that result from scientific research on study collections. Human remains are circulating within that economy.

The issue of the repatriation of human remains is of particular sensitivity at a moment when elsewhere the unlawful removal of human brains and the global traffic in human organs are dominating news headlines. As the anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes has demonstrated, 'The organs trade is extensive, lucrative, explicitly illegal in most countries, and unethical according to every governing body of medical professional life. It is therefore covert. In some sites the organs trade links the upper strata of biomedical practice to the lowest reaches of the criminal world.'

Like it or not, the question of how we treat human remains in museum collections cannot be entirely dissociated from the ethical quandary presented by human organ traffic. Both issues concern the nature and relevance of the sacred within largely secular societies. Western cultural authorities and the ethics they espouse will be judged by how they respond to this problem. To refuse requests for the return of human remains on the grounds of their importance to scientific enquiry could reasonably be interpreted as an anachronistic continuation of 19th-century attitudes towards colonised peoples. Failure to reaffirm the ethical boundaries separating human from inanimate objects is effectively to license further transgressions.