Human Remains and the Law, Friday Dec. 13 in London

The Institute of Art and Law has put together a programme on Human Remains and the Law on Friday Dec. 13, 2013 at the Natural History Museum in London.bg.png

From the announcement:

An afternoon seminar with the generous support of the Natural History Museum

The treatment of human remains, whether contained in museum collections or discovered during the course of building or other works, gives rise to a host of moral, ethical, religious and legal issues. Should all remains be treated in the same way? If not where are the boundaries and are all the boundaries for how museums use remains (exhibition, teaching and scientific research) the same? Do we treat cultures that have disappeared (e.g. the Sumerians or ancient Egyptians) differently from living cultures and why do museums take the approach they do?

The seminar will be chaired by Dr Margaret Clegg and Sarah Long (both from the NHM), and speakers include Jelena Bekvalac (Museum of London), Caroline Browne (Human Tissue Authority), Dr Joseph Elders (Church of England), Professor Norman Palmer QC (3 Stone Buildings) and Carolyn Shelbourn (Sheffield University).

The conference is Law Society CPD accredited.

Places may be reserved here.

Montreal MFA Repatriates Maori Remains

Last week the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts returned a Toi Moko to the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington. The Toi Moko is a tatooed and mummified Maori head. This repatriation is the latest in a series of repatriations the Maori have successfully achieved in the past two decades. There is a lot of hard work and negotiation involved in these returns, so the ultimate return is a welcome occasion. At the ceremony the head was not permitted to be filmed or photographed. The head was laid “under a sheer black cloth, it was wrapped in cellophane and packaged in a series of protective boxes for transport. All the while, a group of Maori chanted, prayed and sang during an emotional ceremony”. The Globe and Mail, reporting on the ceremony reported:

In the 19th century, Europeans became enamoured with the heads and the Maori began using them almost like currency to trade for muskets and other coveted objects. While some were sold and traded, others were stolen because of their value as curiosity items. “Before, they were received as works of art. They were people and they are people,” said Michelle Hippolite, co-director of the Museum of New Zealand. “In our culture, remembering that they are people first is what is most important.” The head that ended up in Montreal was obtained by F. Cleveland Morgan in 1949 at the Berkeley Galleries in England, before being donated to the museum. The Maori estimate that they have retrieved about 320 of the 500 known remains around the world, located in 14 different countries. That doesn’t count private collections, but some collectors have come forward after hearing about the campaign to repatriate the heads.

  1. Sidhartha Banerjee, Canadian museum gives back mummified Maori head, The Globe and Mail, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/canadian-museum-gives-back-mummified-maori-head/article5546908/ (last visited Nov 28, 2012).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Student Essay on NAGPRA and ‘culturally unidentified’ human remains

Matthew Birkhold has won the National native American Law Students Association’s 10th annual writing competition with an assay published in the William Mitchell Law Review. From the Introduction:

In recent years, NAGPRA’s characteristic equilibrium has fallen out of balance. In an effort to restore the law’s equipoise, the Department of the Interior published a new final rule, effective May 14, 2010, delineating procedures for the disposition of culturally unidentified Native American human remains in the possession or control of museums and federal agencies. In this attempt, however, the new law swung too far. By evaluating the new rule’s impact on culturally unidentified human remains, this article interrogates the notion that the new regulation is an “important step toward fulfilling the intent of Congress as expressed in NAGPRA.” Because NAGPRA itself is silent on the appropriate disposition of culturally unidentified remains, the only guidance about the intent of the new law comes from the legislative history of the Act, the Department of the Interior, and the courts. Each source establishes NAGPRA as human rights legislation designed to protect Native Americans’ rights and demonstrate respect for remains while achieving an agreeable counterpoise between the competing interests of the Native American and scientific communities.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Marischal Museum Returns Maori Remains

The University of Aberdeen’s Marischal Museum has decided to return 9 toi moko, or preserved, tattooed heads. According to the press release, “the University follows a standard procedure when responding to a request for repatriation… [it] involves an expert panel who will consider various issues, for example the history, the status of the people making the request and the importance of the item”. The toi moko will now return to the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, where they will be cared for under the “protocols established by their Maori elders”. Human remains are a difficult issue, but it appears that the University has gone about this repatriation in the right way. Sometimes the remains have been embalmed in toxic chemicals such as arsenic, or formaldehyde; thus making it difficult to simply bury them. Often times specialist are required. In addition, though this certainly does not appear to be the case here, when native groups seek the return of remains or other objects, it sometimes highlights the dichotomy between the way their ancestors lived and their lives today. Also, institutions need to be careful which tribe they are returning remains or objects to. Often, there may be multiple tribes with a claim. For those interested in this area, Michael Brown’s Who Owns Native Culture is an excellent place to start.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Burns Mummies For Sale


Yesterday, the Concord Monitor picked up a story from a couple weeks ago by Michael Stroh, of the Baltimore Sun, involving the so-called Burns mummies, and their sale on eBay. The mummies were preserved with salt, mercury lead, sugar and arsenic by Allen Burns, a Scottish anatomist. The cadavers are estimated to be 200 years old.

The study of anatomy was once quite a difficult pursuit, as students were forced to steal bodies, or wait for a prisoner to be executed before they could dissect a cadaver.

In this case, Michigan authorities confiscated a cadaver in October, which had been put on sale on eBay. Ronn Wade, director of the University of Maryland anatomical-sciences division suspects the body may have been part of the Burns collection. The University of Maryland acquired the Burns collection from Granville Patterson, a protege of Burns, in 1820 for $7,800. The collection once amounted to 500 specimens, but today there are closer to 150.

I’m not sure how close a collection of cadavers comes to our paradigmatic conception of cultural property, but they are the subject of serious study, and illustrate the evolution of the scientific study of the human body. One wonders how many other cadavers are offered for sale on eBay.

(Image: Sun photo by Andre F. Chung)

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Ramses II for sale

French police arrested a man attempting to sell pieces of hair from Pharoah Ramses the II on the internet. He was asking for 2,000 Euros for hair samples. The main claimed his father worked on restoring the body between 1976-77. Ramses II was born around 1304 BC. The unfortunate story highlights the fact that human remains are being bought and sold, and are an unfortunate component of the illicit market in cultural property. It will be interesting to see exactly how French authorities prosecute this man. The mummy most likely belongs to Egypt. Even if the man had nothing to do with the actual removal, it is likely he will be charged with receiving stolen property.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com