13 April 2015

Museum Stores as a resting place: Working with human remains

The last month has seen a renewed Swedish public debate about human remains. In the basement of Karolinska Institutet, the institution behind the Nobel Prize in Medicine, a large collection of human skulls and bones was found. It is a reminder of the central role Sweden played in phrenology and race biology, of the central role race biology played in pre-war Sweden. For some this has been news, for others the continuation of a long discussion on how we shall deal with the fact that many museum and hospital stores contain such collections. The Swedish government has now decided that ten of these human crania shall be returned to New Zealand and French Polynesia. These have had specific requests for repatriation. Still there will remain well over 500 crania in this collection only. 

For me it brings back memories from when I started out at the Museum of Ethnography in Stockholm in 2006, as a photographer for a large project for digitalization of the collections. I was hired to photograph the vast collections of objects from Papua New Guinea and Congo. The shelf in my studio was constantly re-filled with new objects of all kinds. It was my first assignment as a museum photographer and I found it amazing to get to see all these objects up close.

After just a short while into my work I started to find crania on my shelves: more and more of them every day, many with notations written directly on them, by hand. My stomach clenched. Had they forgot to inform me about this?

I found out that the government had commissioned us to make an inventory of human remains. All such material in the Museum of Ethnography should now get a photo image, made by me. Was that a problem?

It wasn’t the first time I met death as a photographic theme. I had previously made a photo reportage about the morgue at Västervik Hospital and I had documented grave yard workers in Gothenburg during a whole year. These were both about death in an expected context, though. This was something completely different. It wasn’t easy to understand.


White boxes stood waiting on the shelf; a thumb; a dried lower leg with a tattoo; and all these crania with loose jaws. I couldn’t just bite the bullet and put on my cotton gloves.

Not now. I took care of the shell necklaces first. And then came the next day. Repeat.

All this material had once been alive. Hundreds of body parts in my hands. How did they all get here?

I looked into a box with a cranium that had some skin left at the top of the head. Come on, I encouraged myself. Breathe. Push off.

Dead stop.

I looked at my watch. Soon our cleaner Carlos would show up to sweep the floor. At last. I had a plan to get this done. I nervously waited for him, greeted him with a big smile. Then, with his unintentional help, I lifted the first cranium out to the backdrop and took the photograph. Carlos did not comment on it, for him it was probably just another day in the museum stores. I was relieved, and hurried to finish another one before the floor was swept.
I had crossed the threshold and could go on with my inventory. Still, my head is full of questions about what is the right thing to do with these materials today, or, the least bad.

Eventually we were done. Human remains from around 800 individuals had gotten clean boxes, photo documentation and as much information as had been possible to dig out.
Guidelines for the handling of human remains in museum stores were developed. An exhibition called (In)human was produced in cooperation with The Living History Forum and the Swedish Exhibition Agency along with a publication (in Swedish only) on Human remains – a problematic cultural heritage

What is the situation in the stores today? Some human remains have been repatriated, while most others are still there in their white cardboard boxes. From time to time I have business in that part of the stores. It doesn’t cause my heart to race any more.

Museums have a history that we cannot shut our eyes to. Now I am a part of it. At first it was very reluctantly. Then a feeling grew that this inventory work was necessary, that it focused an important part of history.

Rose-Marie Westling works as a photographer at the Museum of Ethnography in Stockholm.

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