News: Calls for Ethical Review in Research using Human Remains
Within the last few weeks, several research projects involving human remains from ancient Egypt have been reported, promoted and equally criticised across various social media platforms. A recent Museums Association report discusses these criticisms in more detail and with regards to the current relevant guidelines for ethical approaches to human remains.
Concerns relating to both the recent museum project ‘recreating the voice’ of the mummified remains of Nesyamun from Leeds Museum and claims made within the report stemming from analysis of the remains of Takabuti from Ulster Museum have received negative attention in particular, with many responses on social media platforms such as Twitter calling out the research projects for their lack of ethical considerations. This has in turn, as detailed within the recent Museums Association report, led to calls via social media for a major
review of ethical and scientific standards relating to human remains.
Such a review concerning the ethical considerations within the museum sphere is not only exclusive to ancient Egyptian human remains, but indeed pertains to any collection featuring human remains across heritage institutions. Much of the negative reception of these recent news stories has also highlighted that the current guidance for human remains was last published 15 years ago, and thus there may be a contemporary need to update these recommendations to adequately reflect the modern attitudes towards human remains.
The problematic engagement with human remains in the past (particularly during the 19th century), including the ‘unwrapping of mummies’, is often regarded in modern contexts as ‘disrespectful’ and ‘desecrating’ the ancient remains (see for instance Ancient Origin’s discussion of unwrapping parties, and Dr Angela Stienne’s Mummy Stories website for further discussion of museum collections of mummified remains).
Such calls for a review will undoubtedly become part of conversations within wider heritage events taking place throughout the year (such as MuseumNext and other conferences and associated events focusing on related topics such as decolonisation), as research projects such as those outlined above continue to take place.