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Human remains in museums – ethical challenges

In “Homage to the Departed” we explore ethical issues in treatment of human remains in museums.

The display or depiction of human remains in museums, whether as actual specimens, casts, or images, raises numerous ethical dilemmas and have been the subject of much debate. These issues touch upon cultural sensitivity, respect for the dead, and the broader implications of Western-centric Museum practices or colonial narratives.

Historically, human remains, and artefacts associated with them, have been treated as mere objects for scientific study, exhibition, and collection, without due regard for the cultural, spiritual, and personal significance they hold for the communities from which they were taken. Recognising them as human individuals and their depiction acknowledges their intrinsic worth and the cultural ties they embody. Museums have been embracing these issues as they seek to address and redress negative legacies from the past.

Project team viewing museum archive.Project team viewing museum archive.

Project aims

We aim to encourage interdisciplinary dialogue, multi-perspectives and promote inclusivity. The artists were embedded in this project as participants, creators, and representatives of diverse communities with carefully planned assignments and activities within the historical framework of the museum.

This novel methodological approach enabled a meaningful exchange across cultural differences of – personhood and ancestor – what we owe to the dead, how they should or should not be treated and more broadly about the complexities and deep cultural sensitivities of the intended narratives displayed in the museums. The aspiration was to evoke exploration with a visual narrative to reveal the complex ideas and relationships between Mind, Body and Spirit.

This project both initiated and enhanced some existing local collaborations by bringing together artists and academics and the heritage sector for the first time. Many of the artists experienced their first visit to the McGregor Museum and worked across the disciplines because of this initiative. Subsequently, they established the Kimberley Art Collective under the guidance/mentorship of Anna Suwalowska. The collective objective is to undertake collaborative projects together in Kimberley and beyond.


Project team looking t artwork

Significance of the place – Kimberley and McGregor Museum

The history of KImberley and its surroundings played an important role in this project. Kimberley, situated in the semi-arid central interior of South Africa, sprang into existence only in 1871 following the discovery of diamonds. Mushrooming mining encampments became more permanent with time, and individual diggers’ workings were steadily amalgamated into companies – eventually all to be subsumed with the consolidation, in 1886, of De Beers under mining magnate Cecil Rhodes.

The area was previously occupied sparsely by Khoe-San people, evidence of whose presence is preserved at a few rock art and Stone Age sites beyond the modern city. Kimberley’s north-west hinterland also included precolonial farming communities collectively known as Tswana. Christian missionaries and Griqua frontiersmen had brought colonial influence into the region from the early 1800s but the mineral revolution consequent on discovery of diamonds (and, not long after, of gold further inland) would transform the subcontinent into an imperial project.

The modern mining and industrial economy of the country, previously a colonial backwater, began with Kimberley. Competing political interests between the British (holding the colonies Cape and Natal) and the Boer Republics (Free State and Transvaal) erupted in the Anglo-Boer/South African War in 1899-1902, with Kimberley (and with arch-imperialist Rhodes in residence) being besieged during the first four months on the war.

From the start, the labour needs of the mines were met by African migrant workers coming from many parts of the subcontinent, adding to the cosmopolitan mix. It was said that almost every nationality in the world was represented in the town, as can be noted on the gravestones in Kimberley’s earliest cemeteries (although these traces are increasingly lost through vandalism in the present). To restrict and control African labour and to limit the theft of diamonds, Kimberley’s closed mine-worker compounds were established from the mid-1880s, becoming an institution replicated on the gold mines and in other mining contexts, and in the still later segregated single-sex township hostels of notoriety in the twentieth century apartheid era.

In the early twentieth century the widow of a former mayor of Kimberley, Mrs Alexander McGregor, bequeathed to Kimberley a museum, to which was appointed a first director, the formidable Cambridge-educated Miss Maria Wilman, who developed it into one of the country’s leading museums. Miss Wilman (whose science degree at Newnham College was not recognised until the 1930s because she was a woman) retired at the age of 79 having served, from 1908, just short of four decades).

Up to the 1950s the museum was essentially a natural history museum (plants, animals, geology), but with archaeology, and an ethnographic collection housed in the Duggan-Cronin Gallery. From the 1950s a burgeoning history department gave it a more general focus as a multidisciplinary museum, with the humanities dominating in the museum as it is today.

Wilman was also responsible for some of the museum’s most sensitive acquisitions – human remains, mostly from archaeological contexts. In 2001 the McGregor Museum joined the Iziko South African Museum in publishing a critical study, Skeletons in the Cupboard, addressing the history of museums acquiring and trading in human remains, 1907-1917, and to advance discussion of how to redress past wrongs. The challenges of repatriation and restitution, and issues about respect for the dead, continue as a prime concern for the museum.

Kimberley Mine, 28 January 1930. Photograph: McGregor Museum (Mmkp8395).© Photograph: McGregor Museum (Mmkp8395)

Original McGregor Museum building in Kimberley, nearing completion, 1907. Photograph: McGregor Museum.© Photograph: McGregor Museum

Scene at De Beers Mine, 12 July 1888, after an underground fire. (Photograph: McGregor Museum Mmkp4806)© Photograph: McGregor Museum Mmkp4806