Friday, 24 January 2014

Blogging about bog bodies: should museums display human remains?

2 February 2014 marks World Wetlands Day so I thought I'd have a peek into the back archive of Journal of Wetland Archaeology and came across the article 'Bog Bodies on Display' by Heather Gill-Robinson which was originally presented as a conference paper. It discusses the display of human remains in German and Canadian museums and the difference in public perception of the remains.
Although bog bodies are on permanent display in Europe, recently several of these bodies were brought to Canada for the first time, as part of the exhibition “The Mysterious Bog People: Rituals and Sacrifice in Ancient Europe”. Though the same exhibition had run in Hanover, Germany without incident, less than a week after the exhibition opened at the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa, it faced sharp criticism for the public display of human remains.
“The Mysterious Bog People” is a large travelling exhibition formed through the cooperative international partnership of four museums: Drents Museum of Assen in the Netherlands; the Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum of Hanover, Germany; the Canadian Museum of Civilization of Gatineau, Canada and the Glenbow Museum of Calgary, Canada. Entirely curated in Europe, the exhibition consists of more than 400 artefacts from bog sites in northwestern Europe, as well as seven preserved ancient bodies. The primary focus of the exhibition is to present the artefacts and bodies as evidence of votive offerings to sacred wetland sites.
Although there is no law against the display of archaeological human remains in Canada, it is generally not an acceptable practice. Much of the archaeology in Canada is linked to the heritage of First Nations groups and it may be offensive to the indigenous groups to display the physical remains of their ancestors. Canadian museums, in general, no longer include human remains in any exhibition about First Nations groups and they are careful to ensure that all human remains are shown in an appropriate and respectful manner. During preparations for the “Mysterious Bog People” exhibition, the views of First Nations and other interested groups were taken into consideration as part of the planning.
It was anticipated that strong public reaction against the bog bodies in Canada would exist; only limited negative public opinion has been voiced. The aspect of the exhibition that has caused the greatest public opposition is not the display of the bog bodies, but the commercialisation of the exhibition through souvenirs such as T-shirts.

What do you think?

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