Don’t worry, by the way — a contest post will come tomorrow and prizes will start to fly! I have been acquiring things and stuffing them into envelopes. I just want to talk really briefly about the display of human remains in museums.
Because I was in Ely! And while I was in Ely, as you do, I went to the museum. I got there shortly before they were about to close, so I just wandered around the bookshop a bit. In the entrance, there is this guy:
He is a skeleton in a Roman coffin made of, if I recall correctly, Barnack limestone.
Now, I am not sure off the top of my head if this is an actual couple-of-thousand-year-old skeleton. I suspect it is; it certainly looked like one, but I only really glanced at it. I have seen it before.
Whether or not this specific exhibit is the body of a person who died, there are definitely are museums that display actual remains. It’s been the subject of some debate within the museum community for a while. Some people say that it’s disrespectful to the dead, and that actual skeletons should be replaced with replicas or similar. Others say that the educational benefit outweighs the disrespect and/or that it doesn’t really matter, given that these people have been dead thousands of years.
What’s certain about displays of human remains in museums is that the punters love them. When the Pitt-Rivers museum in Oxford talked about getting rid of its shrunken heads, there were howls of outrage, including the usual denunciations of “political correctness gone mad.” Former fellow Cambridge student Quentin Carroll did a survey confirming that people love the display of human remains: you can read about it here.
Now, partly this may just be the typical human fascination with corpses. You know how we get. That’s especially true for any kind of weird corpse, like a mummy or a bog body, which are desperately fucked-up looking. But partly it may also be that numinous connection I talked about earlier, the thing that made seeing the Coppergate helmet — that strange item with its strange history — so compelling. The presence of continuity.
Cornelius Holtorf (him again!) tells a funny story about putting a replica of a standing stone up in the countryside. People hate the fake standing stone because it feels fake — it’s made of some kind of resin, and it’s hollow, and it just isn’t right. They prefer to go see the real stone in a museum (put there for safe keeping). But the thing is that the stone on display in the museum is also a replica. The real one is too fragile (or whatever) even to go in a display case, so it sits in a museum basement. But people get the sensation of being near the “real thing” with the museum replica, because most of them don’t know it’s a replica.
I think that that numinous feeling, that sense of inexplicable wonder, is one reason people are so into pseudoarchaeology.
Tomorrow: prizes and maybe something a little more exciting generally.