Vienna exhibit tests ethics of human remains exhibit


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Vienna (AFP) – A large, swollen liver. An infant with torn skin. The deformed skeleton of a young girl.

The recent renovation of one of the collections belonging to the prestigious Vienna Museum of Natural History has provided curators with a new test of how to display its vast treasure of human medical remains, some dating back more than two centuries, without crossing the modern red lines of ethics and good taste.

The collection of approximately 50,000 parts of the human body was first designed in 1796 to help train medical students.

In today’s world, such gruesome galleries raise difficult questions as to whether the public good trumps moral issues such as human dignity, power and exploitation, and the consent of these subjects. – admittedly long dead – exposed for all.

“We try to avoid voyeurism by giving as much explanation as possible”, explains curator Eduard Winter, stressing that photography inside the galleries is not allowed.

Winter said he hopes that when museum visitors are confronted with “a 30-kilogram liver … they will realize what alcohol can do for the human body.”

Curious visitors can also learn about the effects of viruses on the body or what burns to blood vessels look like. They can observe human organs, skulls and body parts – exhibits some other countries limit to researchers.

For its supporters, education around the scientific investigation of disease and human health means that access to the collection is in the public interest.

“Everyone will one day have to face the disease,” says Katrin Vohland, director of the exhibition.

“Some people come because they themselves are affected” by certain health problems, while others “want to know more about the evolution of science,” she adds.

“New level of awareness”

The exhibition reopened to the public in September, with only part of the world’s largest publicly accessible collection of pathological anatomy on display in the renovated museum.

“I was familiar with the old exhibition, but the current one is much better prepared, because everything is described, there is a lot more information,” said biology professor Christian Behavy during a recent visit to the museum by the ‘AFP.

Behavy, who led a group of teenagers in the museum, said his class “could digest information better” from exhibits than from textbooks.

Nonetheless, some of the students seemed surprised at what they saw – the skeleton of the young girl with hydrocephalus, for example, or the preserved body of an infant with lacerations on the skin.

Human remains have been a part of these exhibits in Europe since the late 16th century, when Egyptian mummies were first exhibited.

But according to Marie Cornu, research director at the French institute of the CNRS and expert in property law with regard to cultural objects, the beginning of the 2000s saw a “new level of awareness” on the issue.

The debate was sparked by South Africa’s demand to repatriate the remains of Saartjie Baartman, a woman of the Khoisan people who marched through Europe in the 19th century.

After his death, his body was dissected and his skeleton, skull and genitals were on display at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris until 1974.

Controversy also surrounded the plasticization of human remains on display at successful trade shows in the mid-2000s, with some cities banning exhibits on the grounds that organizers could not verify adequate consent and provenance of body parts.

It is only in the last 20 years that institutions have “started to ask themselves questions”, explains Cornu.

Change ethics

To facilitate these discussions, the International Council of Museums has drawn up a code of ethics which states that human remains “should only be acquired if they can be stored safely and cared for with respect.”

It must also be done with due regard to the “interests and beliefs” of the community of origin.

Herwig Czech, professor of the history of medicine at the University of Vienna, believes that today it would be unthinkable for “someone to die in a hospital and then reappear in an exhibition”.

Eloïse Quetel, head of medical collections at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, has also had to grapple with the ethics of such displays and thinks that “they cannot be presented as they were before”.

Visitors should be told “why these collections were put together and kept,” she says.

While the Vienna exhibition does not raise as many thorny questions related to colonialism as those of other European countries, Vohland says care must be taken to ensure that nothing has been obtained illegally and to “know the context in which the specimens arrived”.

“It’s very important to know what you can show to the public.”


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