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Biomedicine in museums

Evt. skotsk forbud mod at udstille kroppe og kropsdele?

By October 18, 2005No Comments

Ifølge avisen The Scotsman er den skotske lovgivende forsamling igang med et forbud mod udstillinger af kroppe og kropsdele:

“Ban on Scientific display of bodies would go against Enlightened past”.
Tiffany Jenkins

Despite the mantra of access and education, displays in Scottish museums and galleries could soon be removed from shelves, as the Executive deems ‘the public’ too sensitive to see them.

The Human Tissue Bill, currently passing through parliament, will outlaw the public display of body parts or the dead body. This will have a severe effect on museums and galleries, especially anatomy and pathology collections, and will impinge on their fundamental purpose: to contribute to public knowledge and understanding.

Unless curators and artists get consent from the people whose bodies they display, or are granted a licence from Ministers (under narrow and restrictive conditions), we will not be allowed to see material that has been displayed for generations.

The bill also prohibits the display of body parts imported into Scotland, even when consent is given, which denies us the opportunity to view foreign material that may be of significant value. It will even be forbidden to show visual images over a computer. Pictures or photographs of a body or body parts will be censored.

This law reverses an important democratic and educational tradition of
open access to anatomical material that Scotland pioneered. For more than 200 years people have be able to see such material for educational reasons.

In his 1783 will, Glasgow-born William Hunter, the physician to the Royal Family and teacher of anatomy and surgery, specifically stated that the University of Glasgow was to promote the utility of his collections to the public.

William and his brother John fought to show that the rationality of medicine lay in its anatomical basis. They proved that only by studying the human body to understand the connections between all parts, could surgeons improve their skills, and save lives.

The Hunterian Museum anatomy and pathology collections were opened in Glasgow in 1807 and the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh at Surgeons Hall from 1832. The early opening to all reflected the legacy of the enlightenment and the egalitarian approach in education and the
importance of gaining public legitimacy for anatomy.The collections have always been popular

Some of this material in museums today is hundreds and hundreds of years old so the collections reflect the changing nature of medical and scientific teaching and research. The specimens inform us about health, disease and accidents.

While the idea of consent seems common sense to many today, it is not
possible to impose these values onto the past. We cannot get a signature from people who are no longer with us and whose identity is unknown.

Nor are we as squeamish as the Executive would like to think. Recent visitor research at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh Museums
shows that more than 80 of those surveyed strongly agreed that anatomy/pathology museums are educational; 86% said that they should
be open to all, not just a chosen few.

This Bill is an explicit attempt to stop the exhibitor of Body Worlds, Gunter von Hargens, from showing his plastinated and dissected corpses
in Scotland. As it happens I think von Hargens a self publicist whose work does not, contrary to his claims, fall into the same tradition as William and John Hunter.

Despite the excellent and informative exhibits at Body Worlds, von Hargens does not show plastinated and dissected corpses to demonstrate
that the rationality of medicine can be demonstrated in its anatomical
basis. Instead Body Worlds offers a degraded idea of humanity; one whose basis can only be found in flayed flesh.

But Von Hargens is not the only one: forensic thrillers on television
exploit a macabre obsession with the dead body that degrades humanity.
In Five’s CSI the criminal is trapped not through the painstaking detective work, but through the revelations of the flesh upon which the voyeuristic camera lingers.

However this ghoulish culture of the corpse cannot be confronted by bans, restrictions and censorship – it needs to be faced up to in the public realm and interrogated.

In fact, when I chaired an event for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, with Gunter Von Hargens there was a full house of people discussing the issue.

It would be a terrible consequence if as the human body becomes the object of morbid fascination; it becomes less available as a public demonstration of the method of scientific study and medical treatment.The Executive should trust us to be able to see and deal with anatomy instead of turning its back on the enlightenment tradition of letting us see for ourselves.

(tak til Martha Fleming for tippet)

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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