Relinquishment, Remembrance, and Repose: Models to Solve the Destination of Historic Relics

Sunday, 16 February 2014
Acapulco (Hyatt Regency Chicago)
Norman Palmer , Barrister and Adviser , London, United Kingdom

Human remains impose numerous and diverse demands upon those who are charged with their custody or release.  Demands can be public and private, communal and individual, according to circumstance.  At different times the prevailing interests may coincide, coalesce or conflict.  Divergent principles may emerge at the point of discovery, relocation, attribution, treatment and destination.   In some quarters the role of museums may be pivotal, in others marginal. In no sphere is the challenge to institutions more exacting and delicate than in the treatment of the remains of indigenous persons.  This is partly because museums have inherited the possession of remains deposited in earlier times, and partly because their own standards have changed.  Public decency and developing notions of the public interest have also played their part.  The proportions of the countervailing interests, and the prevalence of one over another, depend in part upon the nature of the remains, their location and the relationships of petitioners.  This paper will examine two classes of human remains, concentrating on their possible interrelationship, their association with the public domain at large, the rights of individuals connected to those remains and the varying degrees of intimacy between mortal relics and museums.  It will emphasise the legal dimension, the pull of policy and principle, and the recent experience of European jurisdictions.  The classes are

(i)                  the relics of royalty, national leaders and other magnates of particular interest to the history or identity of particular nations or communities, and

(ii)                indigenous human remains that have come to reside in modern institutions following experiences and events related to colonialism, occupation, exploitation and genocide.