This essay is one of a series of “Participant Observations” on the removal of the Samuel Morton Cranial Collection from public display and legacies of scientific racism in museums. Read more reflections from this series here.

I have long been uncomfortable with the public display of human remains.[1] As a child, it disturbed me that museums would display mummified bodies in glass cases. I was equally uncomfortable at funeral homes, but the juxtaposition between the two sites troubled me. I wondered then, as now—why are some dead bodies accorded such respect and ceremony, while others are objectified and subjected to our gaze? 

Perhaps the root of this tension can be found in the nineteenth century, an era rife with hypocrisy, particularly with regard to how the dead were handled. Even as members of the British and American middle classes were constructing mortsafes and dead houses, instituting graveyard night watches, and innovating to foil graverobbers and keep the bodies of their loved ones from dissection halls, the bodies and skulls of enslaved and Indigenous peoples were being sold, bartered, disinterred, and transported through networks around the globe, in order to fill private cabinets and public museums.[2] A Victorian who gleefully attended a mummy-unwrapping party would have surely objected to their own corpse being publicly displayed and unveiled in such a way. Even if Jeremy Bentham famously left his body for dissection and public display as an “auto-icon,” far fewer scientists of the nineteenth century followed in his footsteps, despite the clamoring for bodies to dissect and skulls to display.[3] Samuel George Morton cheerfully collected the skulls of any number of Indigenous peoples, but his own skull was not added to his—or any—collection after his death. 

Discussions of collections of human remains perhaps inevitably shift from history to ethics: it is impossible to disentangle these collections’ dark pasts from their murky presents and ambiguous legacies. Those remains placed on public display, in whole or in part, tend to be those of non-white peoples, often taken against the wishes of their kin and community. Which bodies deserve what kind of rest, and where? What accounts for our willingness to disinter, dissect, and display some bodies and not others? Can the skulls and bodies of marginalized people taken without their consent or that of their descendant communities be ethically displayed or researched? 

The racist hierarchies and subject/object divides naturalized within the racial science of Morton’s time have indelibly shaped the display of human remains in museums. The lack of dignity accorded to such remains, often of non-white peoples, (re)produces the distance with which the presumed white scientist or viewer was to perceive them when these collections were first developed. Continued display of remains like those within the Morton collection both materialize and perpetuate the white gaze and the premises of racist and racial science, which worked to separate the white from the non-white, and to place distance between them in multiple sites and along multiple axes. In the present, this distance continues: non-white remains displayed in a museum cannot be conceived of as ancestors by a white museum-goer. Thus, such remains are easier for white visitors to objectify, revealing the structures of white supremacy and racial science as foundational to the museum space.

Given these dynamics, what historical or research purpose does it serve to publicly display the remains of the dead? Museum professionals and public historians must consider the nature and ethics of the display of objectified human remains. Whose interests are served, and what lessons and messages, implicit or explicit, do they truly convey? A continual refrain in my history of science and medicine courses is a deceptively simple question: “cui bono?”—“who benefits?”—from particular practices. And, as crucially, the flipside of this question: “who suffers?” In the case of the display of human remains, we must consider the extent to which this suffering (or trauma, in Stephanie Mach’s terms) extends beyond death within the communities of descendents of those whose bodies remain on display. 

NAGPRA (the North American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) became federal law in 1990, but the process of the repatriation of the remains of Indigenous Americans has proven slow and inconsistent. NAGPRA, moreover, protects only the gravesites and remains of those of specific tribal identities or lines of descent, which creates its own problems, as Margaret Bruchac observes in this series. No comparable law exists protecting the remains of other ethnic groups, though some institutions like Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania have recently begun to enact policies to pursue repatriation, reburial, and other forms of commemoration for the remains of the African-descendent and enslaved peoples contained within their collections. These policies, inefficiencies aside, perhaps do not go far enough in their protection of the dead. How can we accord the dead—all of the dead—dignity?[4]

Here in Mississippi, researchers recently had occasion to consider some of these ethical questions during the ongoing relocation of the cemetery for the Mississippi State Hospital for the Insane. After archeologists exhume the bodies, the remains will be temporarily stored in an archive, and eventually a combined memorial and research facility will house the remains. The Asylum Hill Project is also centering the voices and desires of the descendent community, broadly defined, and every step of the process has been marked by outreach efforts to this community to navigate a novel approach to best practices for this work with human remains.[5]

If we frame human remains as ancestors instead of as simply objects, we maintain a sense of the personhood of and our kinship with the deceased. Reconceiving all bodies, all remains as ancestors, and thus all museum-goers as descendents, might be a step toward reframing the racialized gaze that erodes dignity and enables objectification within the museum. Human remains may be useful for research, but we must reconsider the means and purposes of display by centering dignity and communication with descendent communities, as well as by expanding our notion of descent and kinship itself. If we conceive of all human remains as those of our ancestors, framing ourselves as descendants as well as researchers, how does that change the calculus of our consideration and what dignity we accord them? 


[1] As a graduate instructor at Yale, with my co-instructor, Paola Bertucci, I once took my students to view the plastinated bodies exhibited in the Bodies…The Exhibition in New York City. I found the experience to be profoundly disturbing and more emotionally overwhelming than I anticipated, though the students were not much bothered by it. Even historians of medicine accustomed to bodies and gore can find their limits.  

[2] On the protection of graveyards and the dead from graverobbers, see: Ruth Richardson, Death, Dissection, and the Destitute, second ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 80-85, 272-275; Michael Sappol, A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 13-18. On the use of the bodies and skulls of Indigenous and enslaved peoples for scientific purposes in the nineteenth century, see: Alice L. Conklin, In the Museum of Man: Race, Anthropology, and Empire in France, 1850-1950 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013); Ann Fabian, The Skull Collectors: Race, Science, and America’s Unburied Dead (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010); James Poskett, Materials of the Mind: Phrenology, Race, and the Global History of Science, 1815-1920 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019);  Samuel J. Redman, Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016); Sappol, A Traffic of Dead Bodies. 

[3] Richardson, Death, Dissection, and the Destitute, 119. Johann Gaspar Spurzheim is one exception; the phrenologist was dissected by a group of physicians at Harvard after his untimely death during his American tour in 1832. His skull was added to his own phrenological collection, which was taken possession of by the Boston Phrenological Society, which formed shortly after his death. Courtney E. Thompson, An Organ of Murder: Crime, Violence, and Phrenology in Nineteenth-Century America (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2021), 41-43.

[4] By “dignity” in this essay, I draw on the notion of “intrinsic dignity” as defined by Daniel P. Sulmasy: “that worth, stature, or value that human beings have simply because they are human, not by virtue of any set of biological, psychological, social, economic, or political conditions…Intrinsic dignity is the value that human beings have simply by virtue of the fact that they are human.” I suggest that such intrinsic dignity should be extended from living humans to human remains as well. Daniel P. Sulmasy, “The Varieties of Human Dignity: A Logical and Conceptual Analysis,” Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy 16 (2013): 938. 

[5] I am not directly affiliated with the Asylum Hill Project or a member of the research consortium, though I have participated in some meetings and events and have discussed these matters with one of the researchers, Molly Zuckerman. For more information about this project, see:

Courtney Thompson: contributions / website /