Tech UPTechnologyIs it ethical to display human remains?

Is it ethical to display human remains?

The recent renovation of the collections belonging to the prestigious Museum of Natural History in Vienna gives curators the opportunity to put the exhibition of human medical remains, some dating back more than two centuries, to the test without having to cross red lines of ethics. and good taste.

The collection has around 50,000 parts of the human body and was born in 1796 with the aim of giving academic support to medical students. To what extent is it ethical to show them to the general public? In the world we live in today, different factors are in conflict. On the one hand they can seem gruesome galleries raising ethical and moral questions about human dignity, power and exploitation. On the other hand, it is important to reflect on the consent of the subjects, who have died a long time ago and are already in the public eye.

“We try to avoid voyeurism by giving as much explanation as possible,” says curator Eduard Winter. Photographs , remember, are not allowed inside the gallery . Winter defends the exhibition’s informative stance, almost didactic, far from atrocity. He hopes that when visitors see “a 30-kilogram liver … they will realize what alcohol can do to the human body.” You can also learn about the effects of viruses on the body or how burns are seen in blood vessels. Visitors can see human organs, skulls and other parts of the body that in other countries are restricted only to researchers.

There is, therefore, a wide group of supporters of the exhibition, based almost on the academic, around the scientific education of diseases and human mental health, so that access to the collection is in the public interest. Katrin Vohland, director of the Vienna Museum of Natural History, makes it even clearer: ” Everyone will have to face a disease one day .”

“Some people come because they themselves are affected” by certain health problems, while others “want to know more about how science has progressed,” adds Dr. Vohland.

Although the exhibition reopened to the public in September, only part of the pathology collection is accessible to the public after the renovation . The current exhibition is more attractive than the previous one because, as the biology professor Christian Behavy says, “everything is described, there is a lot of information” interviewed by AFP. Behavy was leading a group of teenagers and claimed that her class “could better assimilate the information” from the exhibition than from the textbooks. Despite this, some teens seemed puzzled by what they saw: the skeleton of a girl with hydrocephalus or the preserved body of a baby with skin lacerations.

The truth is that human remains have been part of exhibitions in Europe since the late 16th century, when Egyptian mummies were exhibited for the first time. But Marie Cornu, director of research at the French CNRS, in early 2000 there was a new level of awareness on the subject of cultural objects. The debate was sparked by South Africa’s request for the remains of Saarjie Baartman, for their repatriation. It was about a woman from the Khoisan culture that was exhibited in Europe in the 19th century. After his death, his body would be dissected and the skeleton, skull and genitals were exhibited in the Museum of Humanity in 1974.


The controversy also came with the plastination of commercially displayed human remains, with great success in the mid-2000s. Some cities banned the shows on the grounds that the organizers could not verify the consent and provenance of the parts of the show. Body. All this, says Cornu, means that in the last 20 years the institutions have “begun to ask themselves questions”.

In order to defuse the discussions, the International Council of Museums has drawn up a code of ethics that stipulates that human remains “should only be acquired if they can be safely preserved and treated with respect.” Also paying due attention to “interests and beliefs” of the community of origin.

Herwig Czech, professor of the history of medicine at the University of Vienna, says that today it would be unthinkable for “someone to die in a hospital and then reappear at an exhibition”. It would also be macabre for those who knew him, obviously.

On the other hand, Eloise Quetel, director of the medical collections at the Sorbonne University, Paris, says that the ethics of these exhibitions must be taken into account and that “ they cannot be presented as before ”. Visitors should not only go to see human remains, but should know “why these collections were gathered and preserved.”

Although the Vienna exhibition does not have the thorny problems related to colonialism, Vohland assures that care must be taken with the origin and legality of the samples, in addition to that one must “know the context in which the specimens arrived.”

“It is very important to know what we can show the public.”

Article source: AFP

In March 2019, just before the confinement, the Valdecilla Pathological Anatomy Museum was inaugurated, with some 400 pieces in its collection. Almost all the exhibits have been obtained from the more than 13,000 autopsies performed in the last 50 years.

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