Are Museums Ready to Reckon with Ill-Gotten Human Remains?Historians in the News
tags: museums, colonialism, public history
In the Spring of 1782, a 7-foot-7-inch man known as the Irish Giant came to London, advertising himself in the newspapers as a “modern colossus” and “the greatest natural curiosity ever seen.” For his 14 short months in London, the great lumbering giant enjoyed admiration and wealth. But he drank too much and kept his fortune of about $130,000 in today’s money on his person. Those riches were stolen from his pocket while he was at a bar near the junction of Charing Cross. He drank more and got sick. Soon he would die, either from the tumor that had sped his growth, alcohol, or tuberculosis.
When Charles Byrne was close to death, he grew scared that his corpse would be seized by surgeons and dissected. He was so worried, in fact, that he arranged for his friends to bury him at sea. Meanwhile, the brilliant Scottish-born surgeon John Hunter had assembled an important anatomical collection, including specimens he’d painstakingly prepared from his own dissections. Now he wanted Byrne. In 1783, when the Irishman died at just 22 years old, Hunter somehow got the body, likely bribing the undertaker or those charged to keep watch over the coffin.
For more than 200 years, the Hunterian Museum in London has shown off that monumental skeleton as the crown jewel of John Hunter’s collection. Blotches of discoloration are still visible in some places, such as on the ribs, perhaps the marks of the master dissector working in uncharacteristic haste out of fear of being discovered.
Recently, the gallery has been haunted by objections that Byrne is there against his dying wishes. A 2011 article in the BMJ called for the Irishman to be given a proper burial, provoking a flurry of replies on both sides of the issue. The Hunterian has been closed since 2017 for renovations, but it hasn’t agreed to stop showing the skeleton. Instead, the gallery released a non-committal statement in October 2020 that “an update on plans for all the displays in the new Museum will be issued in due course.”
Clearly, museums are still grappling with what to do with specimens like Byrne’s. Last January, Harvard University launched a committee to decide how to handle the remains of an estimated 22,000 individuals in its possession, including 15 people of African ancestry who lived during American enslavement. The challenges associated with such reckonings are innumerable: the sheer volume of human remains in museum collections, the difficulty in figuring out where many of these remains came from, and, of course, the imperative to balance the educational value of the remains against the duty to respect the dead and their associated cultural groups.