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Biomedicine in museums

Human remains collection management as a 'grey zone' in ICOM's Code of Ethics

On next Thursday, 16 April, I’m contributing to a meeting on the theme “ICOM’s Code of Ethics and the grey zones of museum practise”, organized by Danish ICOM.

The background for the meeting is that ICOM’s current Code of Ethics (from 2004) apparently doesn’t cover a number of ‘grey zones’, which Danish ICOM believes may be in conflict with the Code, for example, the problem about the collection and display of human remains. Write the organisers:

When do human remains constitute scientific material not differing from for instance animal bones or manmade tools, and when do they represent a deceased person deserving sensitive treatment in the entire museum process from excavation to exhibition?

I guess the human remains issue is the reason why Danish ICOM have asked me to participate (though I’m not sure they would if they had read some of my earlier writings on this issue, for example, my paper at the human remains conference in London in 2005 :-).

Other alleged ethically problematic issues include the fact that some museums allow auction houses to operate on their premises or offer museum visitors the opportunity to bring their collectables to the museum to have them evaluated by auctioneers, something conflict with the Code’s rule that members of the museum profession should not partake in any kind of heritage trade. Yet another problem is how museums shall handle international trade in cultural and natural heritage, for exampole, “How should Danish museum professionals deal with demands for the return of objects appropriated for instance in colonial times”?

The meeting will begin with four 30 min talks by Alissandra Cummins (President of ICOM) about ICOMs ethical rules; Bernice Murphy (Chair of ICOM’s Ethics Committee) on grey zone cases from an international perspective; Caitlin Griffiths (Museums Association) on grey zone problems in the UK; and Eva Mähre Lauritzen (the Natural History Museum in Oslo) about similar ethical discussions in Norway.

Then follows a two hour long panel discussion between Anne Højer Petersen (Fuglsang Art Museum), Peter Pentz (The Danish National Museum), Jette Sandal (Museum of Copenhagen), Mille Gabriel (Danish ICOM), Henning Camre (The Danish UNESCO Commission) and myself (Thomas Söderqvist, Medical Museion).

The meeting takes place in the Museum of Copenhagen between 1pm and 5.45pm. For further information, see here or contact Vinnie Nørskov, For registration, email (tell them if you want lunch).

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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