University museums hold over 700 objects made of human remains

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Around 740 objects in the Durham University Museums service are comprised wholly or partly of human remains, a freedom of information request has found.

Out of the three museums owned and operated by the University, both the Oriental Museum and Archaeology Museum have objects consisting of human remains within their collections.

The archaeology museum has approximately 724 pieces of human remains including skulls, ribs, and teeth.

The Oriental Museum is home to the University’s only whole human bodies, with two adult mummies and the mummy of a child permanently on display in the museum’s ancient Egyptian gallery.

There is some debate about whether the figure should include artifacts made with human hair, which it currently does not, and also about whether the figure should incorporate canopic jars containing possible staining from human organs, which it currently does.

There are also some objects where it is uncertain whether or not human remains form part of an artifact.

The bulk of the University’s collections are held by the Archeology Museum.

This includes 37 unworked bone fragments from the Iron age. These were discovered in Bishop Middleton, County Durham in 1932.

The archeology museum also holds 16 partial human remains which were found in the cellar of Abbey Cottage on Dun Cow Lane in the 1970s. This includes a “box of human bone, including skulls” from an unknown time period as well as a “quantity of human bone found in a fertiliser sack in the cellar of Abbey Cottage”.

Abbey Cottage is now home to the University’s Theology and Religious Studies department.

On display in the Oriental Museum is a 19th-century Buddhist human skull cup from the Qing period. It is decorated with coral and fake turquoise.

Also owned by the Oriental Museum is a Tibetan chess set made from 32 pieces of human bones, which have been repurposed from a Tibetan sacred apron set.

There are five objects made partially from human hair in the Oriental Museum’s collection which are not included in the 740 figure.

This includes 19th and 20th-century weapons from the Iban and Dayak tribes in Borneo.

It is not uncommon for university museums to hold collections of human remains.

Recently the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford removed its collection of human shrunken heads from display, with Dan Hicks, the curator of the Pitt Rivers commenting that the display of human remains is an example of something “really unacceptable”.

In the “Decolonising Durham” manifesto, the Oriental Museum, however, is not critiqued for its displays or collections of human remains.

Instead, it is criticised for its links to the Gulbenkian Foundation, which the manifesto argues allows the museum to benefit from the exploitation of the Middle East by founder Calouste Gulbenkian in the 19th and 20th centuries.

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