Ethics and the display of human and non-human remains

I have been remiss in posting updates recently, as I’m attempting to wrap up various projects whilst enjoying my last few weeks in Southampton. As a recap, in mid-November I participated in the 110th annual American Anthropological Association conference, where I co-chaired our Visual Ethics Roundtable and officially took up my 3-year position on the Society for Visual Anthropology‘s Executive Board. The roundtable was quite successful, something that I feel confident in saying given that Jonathan Marion and I have hosted these events for the past five years straight and thus have been witness to their many highs and lows. We had nearly 50 attendees, including very well-established and emerging scholars and practitioners. Whilst Cordelia Eddy (New School) was unable to contribute due to last minute detractions, Jeffrey Ehrenreich (University of New Orleans), Adam Solomonian (University of British Columbia) & Mabel Sabogal (University of South Florida) gave provocative talks that then culminated in more than 30 mins of group debate.
Screenshot by me of AAA blog post about 2011 meeting in Montreal
The following day Jonathan & I were involved in a special event session on the role of visual anthropology in the AAA’s new draft ethics principles. We’ve fed back a bit of information to the AAA ethics task force which may or may not now have an impact on how visual media and methods are addressed in the final version of the principles. We’ll see. In brief, our primary input includes:

(1) the need to identify visual media as one suite of tools among anthropologists’ many tools which demand ethical consideration in our everyday professional practice; and

(2) the imperative to approach visual media with the same due diligence for academic integrity that anthropologists apply to text.

This ethics-oriented work has especial relevance for the exhibition at the Wellcome Collection that I’m helping to curate alongside a team from the Wellcome itself and Portsmouth University. I’ve mentioned the exhibition elsewhere, but it launches in just a few months’ time (29 March 2012 to 17 June 2012), and its title – Brains: The Mind as Matter – hints at the nature of the material to be displayed; namely human and non-human animal remains in assorted forms, plus associated paraphernalia. The objects include real brains in jars or other containment units; brains on film, in photographs, in illustrations, and as 3D models; brains mediated by artistic intervention; and related representations of how people and animals have been variously probed, preserved and manipulated in the name of ‘culture’ and brain science.

The ethical dimensions of such an exhibition are large and incontrovertible. To this end, I gave a presentation in late September at a half-day workshop organized by the Petrie Museum on the respectful display of human remains. Curators from a variety of major institutions in London (e.g. the Hunterian/Royal College of Surgeons, Natural History Museum, Museum of London, Grant Museum of Zoology) attended and/or delivered their own presentations, and there was a bit of time for concerted discussion of best practice. Certainly, there is a relatively substantial academic literature on this topic, and in fact I saw a fascinating session at the AAA conference attending to some of the same issues. But one point I’ve taken away from the workshop is that there is a developing movement (or at least a sentiment) among exhibitions professionals to reclaim or reassert curatorial authority when it comes to sensitive or controversial display subjects. In other words, such professionals typically have the intellectual tools available to produce conscientious and critical displays, and this expertise should not be completely undermined or dismissed in ever-increasing attempts to democratize the exhibition-making experience. Indeed, a couple of examples presented at the workshop spoke precisely to the problems of attempting to cater to certain audience interests ahead of others, as well as ahead, in some cases, of the judicious opinion of curators themselves.

I would say that, in my experience, the more meaningful displays of ethically-loaded objects are those that are well-contextualised, that use both visuals and text to jar viewers out of simplistic interpretations of the subject matter, that weave displays together into a larger critical narrative; and that attempt to trace – or account for the lack of tracing of – consent from brain/object donors. These are strategies that we are trying to employ within the Brains exhibit.

Another point about the exhibition which makes it so pertinent to me is its total variance from our work at Çatalhöyük where we operate on a shoe-string budget driven by local interests and ad hoc tools.  These exhibitionary environments make for great comparative case studies.

Anyway, I’m about to start a related brain project with Richard Wingate at King’s College London which aims to assess student and professor experiences in handling real brain material. I’ll post about that in the future. Otherwise, I’m busy prepping for the move to York in January (including writing a few new module proposals), and finishing off digital humanities work at Southampton, along with a major study of first-year Humanities students’ experiences at the university.

I’ll hopefully post again before the end of the year – in the meantime, my friends and colleagues Alice Watterson & Cat Cooper are hosting an interesting session on visualisation at the upcoming CAA 2012.  The call for contributions is still open, so consider applying!

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