- Vienna’s famed Natural History Museum’s collections presented curators with a fresh challenge in displaying its large treasure of human medical remains.
- Since the late 16th century, when Egyptian mummies were first shown, human remains have been a feature of such exhibits in Europe.
- Human remains “should be obtained only if they can be stored safely and cared for appropriately,” according to the International Council of Museums’ code of ethics.
Showcasing human medical remains
The recent refurbishment of one of Vienna’s famed Natural History Museum’s collections presented curators with a fresh challenge in displaying its large treasure of human medical remains, some dating back more than two centuries, without crossing current red lines of ethics and good taste.
The collection of around 50,000 human body parts was initially envisaged in 1796 to aid in the training of medical students.
In today’s society, such macabre exhibits present difficult considerations about whether the public good trumps moral issues like human dignity, power, and exploitation, as well as the permission of those—admittedly long-dead—subjects on display for all to see.
“We aim to minimise voyeurism by providing as much information as possible,” adds curator Eduard Winter, noting that photography is not permitted within the galleries.
Visitors who are interested can also learn about the impact of viruses on the body and how to burn damage to blood vessels appear. They can examine human organs, skulls, and body parts, which are restricted to researchers in certain other nations.
Access to the collection is in the public interest, according to its advocates, because knowledge about illness and human health is in the public interest.
A new level of awareness
In September, the exhibition reopened to the public, with just a section of the world’s biggest publicly accessible anatomical pathology collection on show at the rebuilt museum.
“I knew the last exhibition, but the present one is much better prepared, because everything is detailed, and there is much more information,” remarked biology instructor Christian Behavy on a recent visit to the museum.
Behavy, who was guiding a group of youngsters around the museum, stated that his class “could take in the information better” than textbooks.
Since the late 16th century, when Egyptian mummies were first shown, human remains have been a feature of such exhibits in Europe.
However, the early 2000s witnessed a “new level of awareness” on the problem, according to Marie Cornu, head of research at France’s CNRS institution and an expert on property law as it applies to cultural artifacts.
Human remains “should be obtained only if they can be stored safely and cared for appropriately,” according to the International Council of Museums’ code of ethics.
This must be done while keeping “the interests and beliefs” of the community of origin in mind.
According to Herwig Czech, a history of medicine professor at the University of Vienna, it would be unimaginable today for “someone to die in a hospital and then emerge at an exhibition.”
While the Vienna display does not pose as many difficult concerns about colonialism as those in other European nations, Vohland warns that care must be made to ensure that nothing was collected illegally and that “the context in which the specimens came” is known.
“It’s critical that we know what we can show the public.”