Collegium Helveticum
Panel discussion

Corpses, Casts, and Copyrights
Displaying Human Remains


This is a public event. Participation is free of charge and registration is not required.

Human remains in the depots of Western collections and museums have become a problem that keeps provenance researchers busy and is increasingly being solved through restitution. In November 2023, the Geneva Museum of Ethnography returned three mummified bodies to Bolivia, and new laws in France are intended to speed up the restitution of human remains and help “repair” the damage caused by colonization to the already deceased relatives and present-day descendants of the persons whose remains have been taken to places where they do not belong.

Most of these human remains are kept in institutional repositories, hidden from public view. Some, however, were and are displayed in the exhibition space. And their presentation is the subject of increasingly heated debate (e.g. Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford). While a volume published by Thomas Macho and Kristin Marek in 2007 had postulated a “New Visibility of Death” and the volume contained–without any disclaimer–photo series with corpse photographs by two artists, today one could speak of a new problematization of the visualization of human remains. It is true that visitors to museums such as the Lisbon Archaeology Museum still stumble without warning into a room where they find themselves face to face with an Aztec mummy sitting in a glass case, and in many Catholic churches they are suddenly confronted with the skeletons of catacomb saints or other venerated corpses. But our attitude to this phenomenon is changing: In the Gottorf Museum of Archaeology in northern Germany, you can still see the Iron Age “bog bodies”, which have been on display there since the 1950s, suggestively illuminated in glass cabinets, but recently visitors have been asked by the museum to indicate whether they think it is “right that bog bodies are being exhibited here”.

Our discussion at the Collegium Helveticum will address the centuries-long visibility of dead human bodies in churches, collections and museum spaces, and the extent to which we can speak of a change of attitude (across institutions) today. We will talk about the status of human remains. Are they objects or subjects? Are they actors or “actants?” How do they negotiate transitions between different institutional environments, systems of belief, sets of values, and communities? We will extend the conversation to the “extensions” of the human body: casts and photography. Both can be classified between an artifact and the human body, and the proximity to the body/corpse has become a problem for both in museum practice, making their exhibition sometimes inopportune and impossible. Our discussion will bring together different areas of expertise: Theory and history of the museum, collection, and exhibition history (Bärbel Küster), and anthropological life-casts and conservation (Noémie Etienne), the status of and attributions to catacomb saints in the 18th century (Maarten Delbeke), the paradigm of the imprint and the visualization of sacred bodies in the Christian cult of saints (Urte Krass).

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