Human remains at the MEG

A critical look at past and present museum practices

Iris Terradura

It is sometimes difficult to guess that an object displayed in a MEG showcase contains human remains. Yet the museum holds dozens of such objects from different parts of the world (such as a supermodelled human skull from Papua New Guinea or a drum with two skull caps used in Tantric Buddhist rituals in Tibet). These pieces can be described as artefacts, as they have all been culturally modified before entering the institution's collections. However, a human remnant is not a cultural object like any other and is much more likely to be the subject of a restitution or ownership claim. The purpose here is to discuss the provenance of the sensitive objects in the Asia Collection. Indeed, whether these pieces are shown or not, their presence is always more questioned. In 2022, the institution took the decision to no longer exhibit any objects made up of human remains, unless it has the consent of the state or community concerned. Procedures to contact the latter have been initiated and objects for which consent has not been obtained have already been removed from the permanent exhibition, as well as their photographs from the online catalogue of the collections. A new pathway has been proposed in the permanent exhibition to document the objects in question, as well as to explain the reasons for these withdrawals.

Through a critique of the history of the collections, the institution wishes to elucidate the biography of the object, from its creation to its arrival in the museum. Changes in ownership are a central aspect of this investigation. However, it is also important to reconstruct the historical events and contexts as best as possible. This allows us to understand the political, social, environmental and cultural conditions in which the various acquisitions took place. Of course, each case is different, but by asking questions about the modalities of its acquisition (what? who? where? how?), it is possible to inform about the changes in ownership of the piece and to question its place within ethnographic collections.