Museum Ethics

Feb 26, 2013 by

I was at a museum today that features an Anatomical Theatre, where professors of medicine used to perform dissections for University students and prominent guests.  Some of these dissections were performed on humans, and the museum still has artifacts from the time when the Theatre was in use.  I thought they raised some important questions regarding the suitability of human artifacts to be displayed.  Here is what they had to say:

A question of ethics:

How should museums manage collections that may offend certain segments of the public?

  • Is it right to discard such collections or would that distort history?
  • What kinds of collections are too ethically reprehensible to be preserved?  What should happen to them and what would the consequences be?

Is it morally permissible to preserve human remains as though they were a part of a natural history collection?

  • Does the fact that these collections were preserved for research and teaching and likely saved lives have an effect on the moral argument or is that simply the ends justifying the means?
  • When does the body go from being a person to being an object?  Does such a transition take place at all?
  • Is the current debate on stem cell research and abortion not part of the same issue?

Have we avoided these types of ethical concerns regarding collections of this nature if they are seen as historical source material?[1]

This museum’s solution was to let the viewers decide, by placing the questionable content behind a curtain through which one could go and see them.  Is this an effective solution?  Putting these objects behind a curtain just made me more curious to see them, but perhaps some people do think about it and decide that they don’t want to see those things.  What do you think?

[1] Quoted from a sign at Museum Gustavianum

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