On The Display Of The Ancestral Dead In Contemporary Museums – A Few Thoughts

We had encountered this twitter thought from an occasional correspondent of Anglo-Saxon extraction, and had a few thoughts in its relation, that I shall transcribe here:

“Interesting question. I would perhaps take a look at how this is thought about in the Maori world here in NZ – because yeah, similar concerns around ‘these are our ancestors’, and such.

There was also a Scythian burial mound complex in Central Asia that the locals (recently-ish) had objected to being disturbed, precisely because .. well .. you don’t go disturbing the dead, I think with a specific thing about it causing storms? Will have to check .

And we are all familiar with the (alleged) occurrence following the opening of the Tomb of Tamerlane …

I think also that the circumstances ensuing after the archaeological excavation are quite important.

In some cases, reburial with blessing might be an option.

In other cases, human remains (and grave goods) are brought out and put on show.

Of course, that situation viz. grave goods is important to consider – we are familiar, after all, with just what it was that lead to the Dragon leaving the barrow it had taken up residence within in Beowulf, for instance …

There’s an interesting dimension viz. the Auckland War Memorial Museum (our largest museum in this city), which houses an array of elements that are relevant here – both in terms of grave goods and also human remains, indeed ancestral human remains (to people still here today).

In particular, there is a commitment for “Ancestral Human Remains” to be “held in the Museum Urupa (cemetery)”, with restricted direct access for handling etc.

This is from a previous iteration of the Museum’s policy documentation. The Urupa is a particular section of the Museum – that has been properly consecrated as such a space (something that harmonizes interestingly and well with its status as a War Memorial also).

With that in mind, I suppose you could say there is a ‘hybrid model’ on show – one which, at once, has (ancestral) human remains in a museum … yet also within the museum, has these housed within something metaphysically closer to where they’re supposed to rest.

It would be interesting and important to explore, I feel, whether similar ‘hybrid’ approaches might be viable in other contexts – specifically, Indo-European ones.

[although I should perhaps add that the Te Urupa facility at the Museum is kinda envisaged as a bit of a temporary thing for an array – because local tribal groups are understandably keen to identify their relatives and have these brought back to their local burial-grounds]

The point is – at all times, we ought be considering the dignity of the people (both living and dead), and the culture – and the metaphysics that go heavily alongside both dimensions.

This is for the protection of everybody (and every body ) involved.

There is a strong argument, advanced in the OP, that the dignity of the culture is enhanced via archaeology and ensuing museum display. I do not mean to dispute it.

I do, however, think that it can – if anything – become enhanced via the active integration of this perspective

In the case of our Museum, as noted above, it’s a War Memorial. There is, quite prominently, a Cenotaph & parade ground out the front of such – in the manner directly (& intentionally) reminiscent of a Greek temple.

It sees fairly active use in ways that ought be readily apparent

Where am I going with this? Consider the Roman Tombs of the Appian Way –

They’re in a particular place relative to the city, yes – but they’re also accessible.

Why are they accessible? Well, in part, so that the ‘relationship with the dead’ can continue – through offerings etc.

I would suggest, therefore, that part of what could be considered viz. (Germanic, etc.) forebears and museums – might be just such a thing. Not restricting ‘engagement’ to people looking through glass at dryly displayed elements of a ‘remote’ past …

but instead, recognizing that where ancestral remains are, there a ‘resonancy’ of the ancestor is … that the ‘engagement’ can likewise be a ‘living’ one.

Showing the Dead proper respect – so that They know that they’re being honoured via their situation in museums.

And by ‘showing’, I of course, mean doing

Not in a way that causes damage to the remains, goods, etc. – but I do not think it beyond bounds of possibility that something like our Pitr [‘Forefather’ – literally ‘Fathers’, you can see the P => F sound-shift] propitiation rites

might be similarly appropriate herein. Ways of keeping yon Dead that are disinterred … if not ‘happy’, then at least ‘satiated’ and in a better state than might otherwise be the case in the current (entirely secular) paradigm.

This has the added bonus – to my mind – of ensuring that the Past is ‘alive’. Both in terms of being able to see and more meaningfully engage with such … but also that essential sense of ‘connexion’ with the honoured forebears and their culture, participation, even in same.

And, as applies the metaphysics of the whole arrangement – while I definitely think that the relevant warding bits and pieces are important to consider (and that goes both ways), these acts of propitiation for the Dead involved may also help to keep them from balefulness.

Disinterring human remains from a barrow etc. seems like a great way to annoy a ghost (and we are familiar with the draugr lore around denizens still within such sites) – and then leaving same in a glass box for decades is hardly likely to help.

So we offer & assuage instead.

A few thoughts to ponder there, at any rate.

We are, after all, in an interesting nexus wherein we recognize that the Past – as with the Dead – … well, it (and They) are (or ought to be), metaphysically speaking, ‘Alive’.

One thought on “On The Display Of The Ancestral Dead In Contemporary Museums – A Few Thoughts

  1. Pingback: On The Display Of The Ancestral Dead In Contemporary Museums – A Few Thoughts – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

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