#993: Death on Display (Or what’s the difference between a pickled punk and a pharaoh?)

October 15th, 2018

I’m standing in a darkened room while soft, almost New Age music plays overhead. It’s relaxation-tape music, down to the odd moments of the simulated sounds of rainfall trickling around the carpet and glass.

I’m staring at a severed head.

It’s an old head, so that makes it better, maybe? It’s from Egypt’s Ptolemaic-Roman period of 332 BCE to 395 CE, the plaque on the glass case tells me. They think ancient grave robbers threw it away after tearing apart the body to get at jewelry, amulets, medallions and other valuables to pawn. The head is completely wrapped but for a section under the nose where the muslin fell off centuries ago. I see a dried, blackened philtrum leather-stretched back over small, flat teeth.

And this seems natural. It seems natural that giggling kids are being hushed among bodies, that this leather-stretched upper lip that once formed words and smiled is now laid on a table for my edification, education, titillation in a way I would find disgusting if the corpse were younger.

“A body that is 200 years old, what makes that any less palatable than a mummy that’s 2,000 years old? Boy,” Egyptologist Emily Teeter of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago said, taking a moment to think. “Boy, I really don’t know.”

The Field Museum of Natural History is tourist attraction, research institution and final resting place for more than 4,000 human beings, ranging from individual toe bones from Native American mass graves, to ceremonial trumpets carved from Tibetan femurs, to the current “Mummies” exhibit running through April 2019. And it’s just one of the Chicago museums and art galleries — from the Museum of Science and Industry’s body slices and plasticized human bits to the International Museum of Surgical Science’s trephined Peruvian skulls — where corpses are the exhibit.

But there are other collections that aren’t on display, relics of days when spectacle trumped education and it was hard to tell sideshow from research institution. Mummies torn to shreds in early 20th century “unwrapping parties.” Native American skulls plucked from graves as souvenir. Or medical oddities from black Chicagoans unfortunate enough to die poor with unusual bodies in the 1800s.

These are the stories of the bodies that don’t go on the museum floor, of the program frozen by the Trump administration that guides Native bodies’ return and of how Chicago institutions handle those people who, through no fault of their own, have a museum for a grave.

Skulls and the Star-Spangled

The guiding American law for bodies and museums — the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act or NAGPRA — relates only to bodies from the indigenous from U.S. soil, but the moral issues don’t stop where the law does, said Field Museum Repatriation Director Helen Robbins.

“Museums and other state institutions have a lot of other human remains too, and they have the human remains of the mentally ill that became medical specimens — or prisoners or criminals. People who don’t have power in the world, that’s what happens. It is a Native American, indigenous issue because of the history of what happened in this country and also in other colonized places, but there are human remains of African-Americans in museums, in universities, in surgical colleges,” Robbins said. “It’s a much broader reality than just Native Americans.”

The Field has repatriated more than 200 people’s remains domestically through NAGPRA and 200 internationally to indigenous groups including the Maori in Tasmania, the Inuit in Labrador and the Haida in British Columbia.

The mummies are staying put, Robbins said, as the Egyptian government is not considered the descendant of the pharaohs. Under Field policy, remains must be given only to descendant communities for proper interment — whatever that means in that culture.

“They could put them in caves, they could put them traditionally in trees or scaffold burials like they did in parts of the Plains. Burial, cremation, out to sea — whatever ‘repose’ would mean to that cultural group,” Robbins said. “But not sitting in a museum.”

Any institution that receives federal funds, even passthrough funds, has an obligation to report potentially Native American bodies to NAGPRA. Pending or recent NAGPRA cases includes museums of course, but also art galleries, universities, state historical societies, the U.S. departments of Defense, Energy and Agriculture and even the office of the San Bernardino County Sheriff-Coroner after a man brought in a box of hundred-year-old Native American skulls and bones he found while cleaning out the house of a recently deceased relative.

NAGPRA Program Manager Melanie O’Brien said when NAGPRA passed in 1990, remains of more than 200,000 Native American people were identified in American museums. Now that number is down to 180,000.

“It’s a human rights law,” O’Brien said by phone from her DC office. “It’s about equating the rights of Native American dead to the rights that everybody else enjoys in this country. There’s a common-law understanding of what happens to your relatives that die, and that common law was not extended to Native Americans.”

All American grave repatriations stopped in May 2017, when President Donald Trump’s new Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke temporarily suspended all Department of Interior advisory committees, including the NAGPRA Review Committee. While existing committees received individual reviews to see if the administration considers them wastes of money, Zinke added new committees such the Hunting and Shooting Sports Conservation Council, the “Made in America” Outdoor Recreation Advisory Committee and the Royalty Policy Committee, which consists of mostly oil, gas and mining industry executives.

Tribes and museums that had already come to terms on transferring ancestral remains had to simply pause, waiting for Zinke to review NAGPRA, O’Brien said. The committee passed muster and will meet for the first time since then on Oct. 17-19.

Meteorites, Nazis and Slippery Slopes

NAGPRA scared researchers at first, Robbins said. Many were concerned it would open a floodgate of returning valuable scientifics specimens, and not just bodies. NAGPRA also covers the return of sacred objects — like pipes, headdresses and kochina masks — and “objects of cultural patrimony.” Those are objects so central to a tribe’s identity, it’s considered owned by all members; O’Brien uses the original Star-Spangled Banner that inspired the national anthem as her example.

Many scientists feared the slope would slip and NAGPRA could mean turning over insects, fossils, botanicals — and the valuable intellectual property from any medicines derived from such plants.

It wasn’t an unreasonable concern. The Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon tried to use NAGPRA to reclaim the Willamette Meteorite — which the Clackamas people called Tomanowos — from New York’s American Museum of Natural History in 1999, as Tomanowos was the traditional site of religious ceremonies. (They came to a deal — the museum kept the meteorite, but tribal members can schedule private ceremonial visits.)

As Field showstopper SUE the T-rex was found on Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation land held in trust by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, those initial concerns of a specimen floodgate hit close. They also largely haven’t come true.

“I’m not worried that we’re going to have a huge request for botanical specimens or insects or certain kinds of things,” Robbins said. “But the world is changing and shifting and people are asserting ownership over items that 100 years ago nobody would have considered to be claimable or anybody’s cultural property or intellectual property.”

Robbins’ job puts her between researchers and indigenous people, sometimes uncomfortably. While the Field offers bodies back to the tribe — there are 300 people’s partial remains waiting to be picked up and another 1,000 offered to NAGPRA with no tribe claiming them — getting back a sacred object or item of cultural patrimony “isn’t a slam dunk,” Robbins said.

“You have to have a certain tolerance for having people yell at you or be upset, whether its from other institutions or from descendant communities,” Robbins said.

No matter how respectable and above board the museum was in its acquisition of a sacred piece, if they got it from a person who got it from a person who got it from a person who acquired it illegally, it’s not the museum’s.

“The closest that you can come to this kind of process or legal process would be the work that’s done around looted Nazi art,” O’Brien said. “Museums have priceless collections of artwork that, through provenance research, can actually be shown was looted in World War II by the Nazis, was bought by the museum and the museum actually doesn’t have good title to that.”

And some of the pieces were most certainly not acquired with consent, whether sacred relics or human bodies.

“Some of the early collectors, they just walked around picking up human remains,” she said about the museum’s collection of Native American dead. “Late 1800s, early 1900s. ‘Aw, I’m living in Arizona, just walk around picking up human remains.’ They weren’t scientists. They just thought it was cool or interesting.”

Pickled Punks

Repatriating bodies is a global issue. British academics are working to find a suitable resting place in India for the skull of 1850s rebel Havildar “Alum Bheg,” executed by the British in 1857 and found in the back room of The Lord Clyde pub in Kent in 1963. Irish activists including the mayor of Derry have petitioned the Royal College of Surgeons in London to release the body of Charles Byrne, the 7 foot, 7 inch “Irish Giant,” who died in 1783. Anatomist John Hunter acquired the body somehow — the most popular account is that he paid off the undertaker and had his agent fill the coffin with paving stones to dupe Byrne’s friends.

He chopped up Byrne’s body, boiled his flesh off and, while The Royal College of Surgeons’ Hunterian Museum is closed until 2021 for renovation, has displayed the skeleton ever since. Because Byrne was tall.

Some long-sought repatriations have come to pass.

The Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia returned the skull of World War I soldier Thomas Hurdis to the Australian government last year. Donated by an army doctor, Hurdis spent 98 years as part of the museum’s “dry specimen” collection of skulls and bones. Its “wet specimen” collection is body parts and fetuses — many of conjoined twins, including the shared liver of Chang and Eng Bunker the original “Siamese twins” — preserved in formaldehyde or other fluid.

“Pickled punks,” as preserved fetuses in jars were called, were a staple of 1800s sideshows.

Many medical specimens in museums, colleges and other private or public collections have questionable pasts, Robbins said, referring to the collection of mostly African-American medical oddities Rush Hospital gave the Field in 1900.

“Poorhouses, prisons, mental institutions, almshouses. If you don’t have money and you die, today even, what do you do?” she said.

But the issue, like the world, is complicated.

“It’s really important to understand too that human remains in institutional collections have huge scientific importance. Not only for abstract knowledge like anthropology and archaeology and the peopling of the world and all these kinds of more abstract intellectual things. How do you think people developed artificial knees or hips?” she said. “They did it from using, looking at and working with skeletal collections. But a lot of these skeletal collections are from problematic backgrounds.”

Representatives of the International Museum of Surgical Science on Lake Shore Drive declined to be interviewed for this story.

The Field is working on improving the standard of care for the thousands of human remains, even individual bone fragments, not on display. That includes separating co-mingled bodies from mass graves and, when applicable, storing them in a manner fitting that culture’s funeral customs.

They’re starting with the North American remains, then hope to apply that standard to all the people who rest in peace in the museum’s back rooms.

“It’s our responsibility to care for these individuals no matter how they got to the Field Museum,” Robbins said. “It doesn’t matter whether it was legal, scientific excavation or somebody wandering around in Montana picking up a skull.”

Wrapping Up

One of the mummies in the collection of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute is “just a bare body that was in a case,” Teeter said. It was a woman who was acquired, like much of the museum’s collection, by Dr. Henry Breasted, many when he and his wife went mummy-shopping during their 1894 honeymoon. She was stripped of all wrappings sometime between 1910 and 1930.

“We have no idea why,” Teeter said.

Teeter thinks the woman might have been used in an “unwrapping party,” a late 1800s, early 1900s entertainment that is exactly what it sounds like.

“This poor mummy, it’s being basically pulled apart for people to just look at it,” Teeter said. “You’d end up with this poor, naked body on a table and then party’s over.”

It wasn’t the most grotesque fate given to the pharaohs’ heirs.

“Certainly in the 1900s and the 1800s, mummies were dealt with in a much more cavalier way. You hear about them literally being ground up for medicine,” she said. “Every small museum needed to have a mummy, so people were going on the Grand Tour and just buying mummies helter skelter without any concern for their context.”

The unwrapped woman is in Oriental Institute storage, as are other unwrapped mummies and mummy parts. Three of the four regularly displayed mummies — 2,800-year-old singer-priestess Meresamun, 2,400-year-old priest Petosiris and 2,150-year-old “Young Boy” — are in full wrappings and, when available, coffin.

Teeter doesn’t expect the unwrapped woman will ever be displayed. A strip of fabric determined which mummies are showpieces, which storage.

“We exhibit mummies to show something about the culture, and showing just a body is not something about the culture,” Teeter said.

But there have been some unwrapped at the Institute.

One of the people — Teeter’s careful never to call them “specimens” or “things” — on regular display is completely without wrapping as part of a predynastic pit burial, when they weren’t wrapped. Similarly, an unwrapped head was temporarily on display as part of the recent “Book of the Dead” exhibit, which ended in March.

The purpose was educational both times, Teeter said. The unwrapped predynastic pit burial “was an important part of the story of mummification.” The decision to temporarily display the unwrapped head came after a more difficult conversation.

“We also want [museumgoers] to understand the full meaning of what they’re looking at, that it’s a beautiful box but the reason the box is there is that there is a mummy inside it,” Teeter said. “This is a person who chose to be, or his family chose to have him, prepared in this very particular way.”

It is “quite subjective,” Teeter said. She had to fight to get the child’s mummy displayed, but she fought against a guest curator who a few years ago wanted to display one of the collection’s wrapped heads.

“I said no. No. No, no, no, no. To show parts of a body, to me that was disrespectful and just plain ghoulish. There’s nothing to be really learned from that display other than [being] kind of creepy,” she said. “It’s a head torn off a body. It’s somebody’s head in a box. It’s like, ick.”

As sensitivities have changed over the years, different museums have reacted differently. Body Worlds, a traveling exhibit that visited the Museum of Science and Industry in 2005, 2007 and 2011 — and whose creators provided the plastinated specimens for the MSI’s ongoing “You! The Experience” exhibit that kept the Jewish boy from seeing Harry Potter in the story from Oct. 3 — trusses corpses up like art pieces.

On the other extreme, the Manchester Museum in England covered all its mummies in cotton shrouds in 2008 out of respect. That lasted two years, when they caved to public demand and re-uncovered the mummies. Other museums display trigger warnings that bodies are present, or put the humans in the collection in side rooms where no one could stumble upon them unaware.

Beyond the Native remains guarded by NAGPRA, there’s little guidance for how human remains can be displayed, said Teeter, Robbins, O’Brien and a few other museum folks who didn’t make it into this article, for reasons you’ll discover Thursday.

Instead, the reasons a pharaoh is science and a pickled punk sideshow is cultural, they said, part of a general shift in terms of what people expect of our museums.

“There should be a purpose,” Robbins said. “It shouldn’t just be ‘Hey, here’s the Irish Giant! Look! Isn’t that weird?’”

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You are currently reading #993: Death on Display (Or what’s the difference between a pickled punk and a pharaoh?) by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

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