Inside the human remains store: the impact of repatriation on museum practice in the United Kingdom

Morton, S (2020) 'Inside the human remains store: the impact of repatriation on museum practice in the United Kingdom.' In: Fforde, C, Keeler, H and McKeown, T, eds. The Routledge companion to indigenous repatriation: return, reconcile, renew. Routledge, Abingdon, pp. 902-917. ISBN 9781138303584

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The repatriation of the human remains of Indigenous people collected within a colonial context has been the subject of controversy and debate within UK museums over the last thirty years. Although the main focus of the debates has been the arguments for and against return, the discussions have also formed part of a wider social dialogue about human remains and body parts that has raised questions around consent and the dead as objects of display. These ongoing debates about the display of remains, and the engagement with alternative narratives precipitated by repatriation claims, has led to a reconsideration of all human remains held in UK museum collections, something that was both influenced by, and contributed to, the development of New Museology and a broader re-articulation of museum ethics. The result of this process has been guidelines and human remains policies that have respectful treatment at their core, however this is such a contextual concept it has proved difficult to link ideology to practice. Therefore to gain a better understanding of the impacts of repatriation on museum practice this paper departs from the discussions that focus on policy and the display of human remains to instead consider human remains within UK museum stores and the meanings that they hold for the people that work with them. Incorporating field diary entries and interview extracts from my research in five UK museums, this paper builds on recent on work in cultural geography and museum studies on materiality and the relations between people, things, practices and buildings. By comparing and contrasting how human remains are conceptualised and treated with respect across the different institutions the multiplicity of competing and cohering meanings are revealed. This focus on materiality allows the simplistic framing of human remains as ‘objects’ or ‘ancestors’ to be left behind, enabling the agency of the remains themselves, and the impact repatriation has had on that agency, to be made explict.

Item Type: Book Chapter or Section
Keywords: repatriation, human remains, museum ethics, museum policy, indigenous, materiality, agency, museums
Subjects: A General Works > AM Museums (General). Collectors and collecting (General)
G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > G Geography (General)
H Social Sciences > H Social Sciences (General)
Divisions: School of Writing, Publishing and the Humanities
Research Centres and Groups: History and Heritage Research Centre
UoA: History
Date Deposited: 12 Nov 2018 18:31
Last Modified: 16 May 2022 14:38
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