I Spy A Skeleton

Why India needs to rake up the problem of human remains in museums

The following article has been prepared by Sneha Bhura, The Week.

On September 26, 1935, F.H. Gravely, superintendent of the Government Museum in Madras, wrote to the secretary of the Australian Museum about an “aboriginal skull”. Gravely was an acclaimed botanist, zoologist and a student of archaeology at the time and was known to have advanced the scientific study and preservation of the museum’s collections. In exchange for this adult, male “aboriginal skull” from Newcastle in Australia, Gravely confirmed that the museum in south India would be sending a “fairly typical skull” of a “Male Telugu (one of the four main Dravidian speaking peoples), 30 years of age”. There was no mention of the provenance of this Telugu skull.

Past meets present: A representational model of human evolution at the Indian museum, Kolkata – Salil Bera

Later in an internal mail of the Australian Museum on this exchange, dated October 31, 1935, the director rues the complete lack of upper teeth in the male Dravidian and how the “skull’s usefulness is prejudiced” for researchers looking at “comparative dentition”. The Australian skull was evidently better preserved. Be that as it may, both the museums got their share of the exchange. But like the aboriginal skull, how many more such specimens of human remains exist in the storage vaults of the Government Museum in Chennai today? Or, in old Indian museums at large?

This question has vexed Indian-Australian museum expert Vinod Daniel for quite some time now. Associated with the Australian Museum for over 15 years, he first came across official letters on the cranium exchange when a set of Indian ritual objects — acquired by a missionary in Erode — was being repatriated by the Australian Museum in 2000. “That is when I came across information that there was this exchange done of human remains back in 1935,” says Daniel. “There was some interest to see whether remains of the aboriginal person could also be arranged. But we worked on such short time-frames back then. The fact remains, though, that museums are no place for human remains anymore.” Daniel is well apprised of the evolving museology discourse around repatriation of material heritage unjustly acquired, and by extension human remains which were once extensively procured for “scientific research.”

Daniel pegs an approximately 70-year time period, from the late 1800s to the 1940s, when there was a great deal of movement on human remains like old skeletons, bones and bone parts. Sought after by anatomists, anthropologists and osteoarchaeologists to understand their origins, old diets, ancient diseases and what-not, colonial-era museums (often attached to university departments) became custodians of human remains. They were also displayed in glass cases for educational purposes. There are two schools of thought on the matter: the dualistic and materialistic institutions bent on advocating the cause of science, academicians who are alleged to have treated human remains as products, objects and things for their selfish ends. The other is more concerned with the animistic, indigenous communities who do not consider the dead any different from the living; they think that when ancestral remains are unfairly ripped out of their cultural contexts, there is “disconnection”, disrespect and lack of closure.

The second school of thought has gained tremendous precedence in recent years. The United States has the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990), which facilitates the mannerly return of Native American human remains, funerary and sacred objects, and other specimens of “cultural patrimony”. In Australia, there is a government programme on the return and reburial of aboriginal remains called the International Repatriation Programme. The UK is believed to harbour a large collection of human remains in its institutions.

Under their Human Tissue Act (2004), nine national museums were once made to “deaccession” human remains from their collections, based on certain conditions. In October 2020, Booker-winning author Hilary Mantel called for the return of the bones of 18th century Irish “giant” Charles Byrne. At 7ft 7 inches tall, Byrne had a genetic defect of gigantism. He wished to be buried at sea when he died, but his skeletal remains were acquired by surgeon and anatomist John Hunter, who displayed it in his museum. Two centuries later, Byrne’s bones are still with the Hunterian Museum, London.

In India, there has been no formal or informal survey undertaken to map the extent of human remains in museum collections. Daniel stresses for a policy change at the national level, which needs to endorsed by the states. “The first step is to do an analysis of how many museums have these remains by scanning old hardcopy records,” says Daniel. “There must be storage spaces in the museum where they are rotting away. With this data, one can enact a law, so that it is illegal to collect and display human remains for museums, and that it is only appropriate to return the existing ones. A great deal of work is required in terms of finding the provenance of these remains. Who is alive from those cultures that can receive it? It is up to the community to put a closure according to their customs.”

“The Indian Museum, Kolkata, and the Government Museum, Chennai, because of their antiquity, are places likely to have human remains,” says Venu Vasudevan, former director-general of the National Museum, New Delhi. “The most important human remains on Indian soil are the mummies. We have six in the country, including a 4,000-year-old one in the Indian Museum. Egypt has already made a claim for all stolen mummies to be returned to their homeland.”

Repeated calls and emails for a response on human remains in the Indian Museum went unanswered.

Interestingly, the only human remains considered ethically appropriate for display anywhere in the world are mummies. “You may question the how and why of it but that’s a debate for another day,” says Daniel.

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