Abstract In 1845, a collection of 200 skulls was transferred from the prison in Ghent to the city’s university museum. For over a century, the skulls served various purposes. They were objects of curiosity, sources for phrenological and anthropological research, and anatomical teaching aids. After the Second World War, however, the collection was destroyed, condemned as a reminder of a past tainted by collaboration. In this article, we build on the history of the skulls to discuss (1) the polysemic nature of anatomical collections, as well as the limits of their adaptability, (2) the importance of the study of disposal and absent objects to historians of anatomy, and (3) the culturally-determined ethics of stewardship governing the contemporary conservation or disposal of anatomical collections from the past. Inspired by the material turn, historians in recent decades have included objects in their research, both as primary sources and as subjects of inquiry. The study of things and their relationships to the human world – in the words of Arjun Appadurai, their ‘social life’ – has been particularly important to the history of science.1 Scholars have argued that objects not only enable scientific practices but actively shape them. Recent studies, for example, have focused on the role of scientific objects and collections in the formation of disciplines and in the development of academic networks.2 Furthermore, following James Secord’s influential article ‘Knowledge in Transit’, a number of historians have investigated ‘things in motion’ to elucidate the circulation and transformation of knowledge. By studying the different trajectories of objects and their signifiers, historians have sought to understand knowledge as the result of a process of communication between different actors.3 In the history of medicine, this emphasis on material culture has led to a renewed interest in the circulation of anatomical objects. Historians have tried to grasp the propagation of anatomy by focusing on the movement of – amongst other things – wax models, preserved bodies (or body parts) and anatomical atlases.4 Sam Alberti has posited that these objects are ‘polysemic’, because the distances over which they travelled and the different audiences that beheld them provoked constant reinterpretations.5 The meanings attached to écorchés of the French medical modeller Louis Auzoux, for example, shifted according to their circulation between geographical spaces (such as the metropolis and the colony) and cultural domains (like the university and the fairground).6 In the case of anatomical specimens, this ‘polysemic’ process was reinforced by the ‘humanness’ of the material. The creation of anatomical specimens has often been described in terms of ‘objectification’, whereby individuals are turned into things through the fragmentation and conservation of the body. As identity and humanity are cut away and replaced by systematic descriptions and labels, persons are converted into scientific objects.7 Yet this process of objectification is never complete. As objects that were once subjects, anatomical specimens continue to be charged with different and sometimes opposing values – cultural, personal, religious and scientific. Preserved human remains can simultaneously represent ‘a deceased subject’ to relatives and friends and a ‘dead object’ to anatomists. Depending on the social setting, anatomical specimens can shift from person to thing and vice versa.8 Building on these insights, historians and museologists have written ‘object biographies’, showcasing the dynamic role of human remains in scientific collections. Lynn Morgan, for instance, recounts the life-story of the preserved embryo ‘Carnegie no. 836’, emphasizing its changing shape and significance from womb to scientific model.9 Similarly, Henrik Lindskoug and Anne Gustavsson shed light on the trajectory of a human cranium, from its exhumation from a Chilean burial ground in the nineteenth century to its current storage in the Gothenburg Museum of Natural History.10 The polysemy of anatomical remains was also an important theme in a number of recent, edited volumes exploring both the changing status of medical collections over time and the circulation of anatomical objects – beyond borders, between different disciplines and across cultural domains.11 This emphasis on material culture, however, becomes problematic in view of the volatility of anatomical collections. Hieke Huistra has recently stressed the difference between anatomical collections intended for display and those earmarked for handling. Whereas most historical specimens that remain in existence today were meant for display only, nineteenth-century anatomical collections consisted primarily of specimens that were intended to be taken out of their jars, handled and passed around by medical students. Consequently, anatomists regularly discarded these objects once they were ‘used up’.12 On top of that, they frequently disposed of anatomical specimens once they were presumed to have lost their scientific relevance or had fallen prey to decay. Historians of anatomy, it seems, have focused their attention on the ‘lucky few’ existing specimens, while the bulk of anatomical collections have not been subject to a great deal of scrutiny. The usual fate of the nineteenth-century anatomical specimen – namely its rapid and anonymous disposal as ‘medical waste’ – remains poorly researched.13 In this article, we aim to shed light on this ‘missing majority’, by drawing attention to the reasons for, and meanings behind, the disposal of these collections.14 By focusing on the issue of disposal, this article also contributes to contemporary debates about the repatriation and burial of human remains stored in anatomical and ethnographic collections from the past. In recent years, disposal – repatriation, burial, destruction, de-accession, etc. – has been discussed as an ethical way to handle problematic scientific heritage. Several scholars and public figures have posited that preserved human remains from colonial times should be repatriated, since they were collected without consent from indigenous communities.15 Medical ethicists such as Gareth Jones and Maja Whitaker have similarly argued that anatomical specimens should be rendered inaccessible or destroyed (e.g. buried or cremated) if the individuals to whom these body parts once belonged never consented to their preservation, use or display.16 By studying these questions from an historical rather than an ethical perspective, this article will make clear that important concepts in these debates – such as the principle of consent – are in fact historically and culturally determined categories. To clarify these points, we shall build on the history of a nineteenth-century phrenological collection, which was used for over a hundred years by the University of Ghent (Belgium), before it was destroyed after the Second World War. While the skulls have been lost, we intend to write their histories by means of the traces they have left behind, both on paper (such as inventories, scientific publications and other documents preserved in the university archives) and in the recollection of contemporaries. The biography of this lost phrenological collection will allow us in turn to reflect on the circulation of human remains, as well as on the meanings of their disposal. First, we focus on the changing essence of the collection during its regular ‘life-span’. The continuous reinterpretation of the skulls ensured their conservation and use in a developing medical environment. Yet when the skulls were linked to eugenic ideals that were discredited after the Second World War, they were destroyed. This destruction sparks off a more general discussion on the significance of disposal and absent objects. We shall argue that the ‘polysemy’ of anatomical material has it limits, by looking at material and – more importantly – ethical changes that hinder their reuse and reinterpretation. We suggest that the study of disposal in particular provides insights into these changing ethical considerations concerning the preservation and display of anatomical specimens, and, in turn, we shall advance the proposition that contemporary ethics regarding the stewardship of human remains should also be seen as historically and culturally determined practices. The polysemy of skulls In the 1820s, physicians at the Maison de Force – the main prison of Ghent – began to preserve the skulls of inmates. The conservation of convicts’ skeletal remains had been customary since the early modern period, when executed criminals provided the principal source material for dissection. At the start of the nineteenth century, craniometric data became important for anatomists with an interest in classification and species identification. The measurement and comparison of skulls attracted increasing attention, the purpose of which was to analyze and understand the anatomical differences between human and animal species or between different human races. By the 1840s, the collection of the Maison de Force consisted of roughly 170 skulls. At that time, Daniel Mareska, head physician at the prison, organized the collection from a phrenological point of view, looking for links between personality characteristics and the development of areas in the brain. His research mostly focused on the shape and size of the skulls, which he compared to the heads of other social groups in society, such as those of factory workers or peasants.17 As an important tool for phrenological research, the collection of skulls gained national and international fame.18 In 1844, Belgian physicians started lobbying for the transfer of the impressive collection to an institution that would allow its proper display, enabling more medical men to view and study the skulls. They considered the phrenological collection particularly valuable as it contained a large number of ‘authentic skulls’, rather than the plaster copies of famous heads that were found in most phrenological museums.19 In due course the collection came to form part of the anatomical museum of the University of Ghent in 1845. Though the scientific credibility of phrenology was waning, the curators of the anatomical cabinet enthusiastically welcomed the transfer of the skulls. They were not only used for craniometric research, but also served as teaching tools on the structure of head and brain.20 Before the move, a register was compiled, providing a list that linked each anatomical specimen to the identity of the convict, the nature of his or her crime, and the sentence passed on them.21 The fact that the skulls were well preserved and catalogued in an inventory, guaranteed the identification of the specimens and allowed for further research throughout the nineteenth century. Over time, the skull collection helped to develop – and to provide proof for – the new theories that evolved. From this perspective, the skulls’ transfer from the prison to the university was simply the start of a long history of relocation and reinterpretation. In the 1860s, curators complemented the skulls with the heads of decapitated convicts and moved them to the cabinet of comparative anatomy. There, the anatomical preparations from the heads of convicts stood side-by-side with plaster casts and original skulls from ‘different races’.22 The display was directed at showing the differences and similarities between the anatomical properties of the heads of criminals, ‘foreign’ skulls, and even animal skeletal remains. By situating the skulls in the comparative anatomy collection, their meanings changed, to the point where they made sense only as part of a larger collection. In the words of Alberti, they became part of a ‘dynamic entity’, whereby the significance of individual specimens was derived from the collection as a whole.23 Whereas before, museum visitors had been able to draw conclusions on the average size and shape of criminals’ heads in relation to each other, now, they compared the skulls to the heads of animals and other human races, giving rise to theories of anatomical taxonomies characterizing race and marginalized social groups (Fig. 1). Fig. 1. View largeDownload slide Criminological research on the skulls in the anatomical museum in Ghent. From C. M. Debierre, Le crâne des criminels (Lyon, 1895). Fig. 1. View largeDownload slide Criminological research on the skulls in the anatomical museum in Ghent. From C. M. Debierre, Le crâne des criminels (Lyon, 1895). By the end of the nineteenth century, the collection had expanded to include some 300 skulls, and had returned to the anatomical institute. In the care of anatomist Hector Leboucq, the collection of skulls gained further international fame and a number of foreign researchers visited the anatomical museum. The French anatomist Charles-Marie Debierre, for example, performed extensive research on the craniological specimens, calling the collection ‘unique in its genre’.24 Researchers who were then developing criminal anthropology as a discipline in Belgium used Debierre’s data and, by means of his measurements, they nuanced the idea of the born criminal. In their opinion, anatomical data had to be combined with insights from biology and sociology in order to gain real insight into the dynamics between nature and nurture with regard to criminal behaviour.25 After the First World War, the work of Louis Vervaeck gave new impetus to the discipline of criminal anthropology. He established ‘anthropological laboratories’ in Belgian prisons in order to develop a new criminal classification system that took both the social and moral environment and the hereditary deviations of the criminal into account. Anthropometrics remained important to this task, even though research was increasingly based on the measurements of living individuals.26 This long history of reallocation and reinterpretation came to an end in 1940, when the University of Ghent – and the collection of skulls – was caught up in the fervour of the Second World War. The occupying forces wanted to turn the university into an intellectual centre with a ‘German orientation’, by replacing left-wing professors with sympathizers, inviting German guest lecturers and awarding teaching positions to Flemish nationalist academics. Hoping that the Second World War would facilitate the emancipation of Flanders, either as an independent state or as an important part of the Nazi Empire, several right-wing Flemish academics joined Germanophile organizations or fascist political parties.27 One of them was the anatomist Roger Soenen, who, after studies in Leuven and Ghent, had spent two years in Germany completing his education. In 1930, after a research stay at the University of Bonn, he met the well-known ethnologist Eugen Fischer.28 Because of his interest in physiognomy and ethnology, Soenen became Fischer’s assistant at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics in Berlin – today known for its influence on Adolf Hitler’s racist ideology and eugenic legislation. In 1931, Soenen returned to the University of Ghent, where he briefly taught systematic and topographic anatomy until he was fired because of his outspoken Flemish nationalist beliefs. The German occupiers reinstalled him as the head of the anatomical institute in 1941, and in this capacity, he became responsible for the anatomical collections.29 Soenen integrated the study of anatomy in a racist ideology based on white supremacy, anti-Semitism and eugenics. Immediately after his appointment, he established an anthropological laboratory as well as an elective course on race and ethnology, both aimed at the study of hereditary racial anatomy. He maintained close relations with German scientists, including Fischer, and courtesy of their lobbying on his behalf, Soenen became the head of the research community Germaansche Werkgemeenschap Vlaanderen.30 As a Flemish umbrella organization of the German research institution Ahnenerbe, the goal of this society was, according to its mission statements, to promote Hitler’s ideology ‘by means of the highly effective, yet neutrally perceived, political propaganda tool of science’.31 Representations of the anatomical body formed an important medium in conveying the ‘scientific’ basis for the Nazi ideology to a wider audience. Andrew Evans has shown that political shifts influenced the display of anthropological collections in Weimar Germany and that as race and eugenics gained importance, skulls and skeletons became instruments that were used to encourage the public to think ‘racially’.32 As part of this process, old collections were reinterpreted in racial terms and supplemented by new objects. Most notoriously, the Nazi regime, through the Ahnenerbe, selected and murdered Jewish inmates at Auschwitz concentration camp with a view to creating a ‘Jewish skeleton collection’, displaying the alleged inferiority of the Jewish ‘race’ in contrast to representations of the ‘superior’ Aryan body.33 Skeletal remains – skulls specifically – formed attractive propaganda tools, providing the illusion of visual evidence for Nazi ideology as opposed to more abstract notions of genetics and heredity. Craniometrics were also highly valued because of their participatory potential. Nazi exhibits encouraged visitors to ‘discover’ racial characteristics themselves by measuring skulls and, in this way, people were urged to internalize racist classifications and preserve their idealized hereditary qualities.34 Important aspects of Soenen’s work fitted within this framework. In his scientific articles, he reinterpreted skulls from the anthropological collection of the University of Bonn by comparing measurements of the facial bones according to gender, age and – above all – race (Fig. 2).35 During the war period, he linked physiognomy and eugenics in popular publications on the ethnological composition of the Flemish population and on European racial variations more generally.36 In a popularizing study published by the Germaansche Werkgemeenschap Vlaanderen in 1943, for example, Soenen clarified his ideas on race and eugenics by means of idealized drawings of facial features (Fig. 3), through which he wanted to show the superior qualities of the ‘Northern race’ in contrast to Jewish features, which he represented as the pathological result of ‘inharmonious miscegenation’.37 Most importantly, in his course on race and ethnology, he taught students how to measure skulls in order to study racial variations.38 Although Soenen never explicitly referred to the nineteenth-century prisoners’ skulls in his publications, it is thus likely that he placed them in a racist framework: either to study the origins of the Flemish race or to teach students how to measure facial bones. In so doing, Soenen added a final chapter to the skulls’ life: where once they had been objects of curiosity, material sources of phrenological or anthropological research and anatomical teaching aids, now the skulls became associated with a racial ideology, one that, in the postwar context, had to be repudiated. Fig. 2. View largeDownload slide In his scientific publications, Soenen measured skulls preserved in the anthropological collection of the University of Bonn to learn more about the facial physiognomy of different races (in this instance: the Japanese). From R. Soenen, ‘Beitrag zur Morphologie des Jochbeins’, Anatomische Anzeiger 71 (1931), p. 225. Fig. 2. View largeDownload slide In his scientific publications, Soenen measured skulls preserved in the anthropological collection of the University of Bonn to learn more about the facial physiognomy of different races (in this instance: the Japanese). From R. Soenen, ‘Beitrag zur Morphologie des Jochbeins’, Anatomische Anzeiger 71 (1931), p. 225. Fig. 3. View largeDownload slide Popular representation of a man of the ‘Northern race’, from R. Soenen, Enkele begrippen over ras- en rassenkunde (Brussels, 1943), pp. 39–40. Fig. 3. View largeDownload slide Popular representation of a man of the ‘Northern race’, from R. Soenen, Enkele begrippen over ras- en rassenkunde (Brussels, 1943), pp. 39–40. After the war, when Soenen was dismissed from his post and convicted of collaboration, he was succeeded as professor of anatomy by Julien Fautrez. As a specialist embryologist (rather than an ethnologist) and a former prisoner-of-war, Fautrez’s reputation remained untarnished following occupation. His appointment was meant to burnish an image of resistance. In the aftermath of the war, to uphold its reputation, the University of Ghent emphasized the opposition of its students and staff while minimizing their collaboration with the German occupier.39 In this spirit, Fautrez decided to dispose of the skulls that now served as tangible reminders of the eugenics practised by his predecessor.40 It was precisely then that the interpretative flexibility of the skulls, which had long ensured their survival as different strands of research emerged within medicine, ultimately led to their destruction. The collection is presumed to have found its final resting place in the central heating boilers of the university, where the skulls were sent up in flames along with the university’s history of collaboration.41 Historicizing disposal The history of the Ghent phrenological collection raises questions about the reinterpretation of anatomical specimens and the significance of their disposal. First and foremost, it clarifies the significance of Alberti’s concept of ‘polysemy’, because the skulls very clearly had different meanings in different contexts.42 Whereas the particular origins of the specimens did not matter to students learning general anatomy, criminal anthropologists were only interested in the skulls because of the identity of the prisoners to whom these heads once belonged. Additionally, the history of the skulls illustrates that anatomical specimens are recyclable because they are – in Hieke Huistra’s words – ‘made of what they represent’. As they are composed of ‘original’ body parts, anatomical specimens lend themselves to reinterpretation as new sciences develop.43 Because they were in the first instance ‘just skulls’, the phrenological specimens continued to be respected teaching tools well after phrenology was discredited as a science, and so were readily integrated in criminal anthropology and racial eugenics. At the same time, the destruction of the phrenological skull collection shows that the reuse and reinterpretation of anatomical specimens is not limitless. Huistra has suggested that the loss of many nineteenth-century anatomical specimens in fact resulted from their reuse. When injection fluids or destructive research techniques altered the tissue, it became harder for anatomists to research its original composition. Specimens consequently lost their medical relevance and were thrown away. Other material conditions, most importantly decay, too, could render the adaptability of preserved human remains difficult.44 In the case of the phrenological skull collection, however, the specimens were not manipulated, nor did they deteriorate. Its history shows that emotional and ethical reasons, in addition to material circumstances, can complicate the reuse of anatomical collections. The skulls’ presence in the anatomical collection of the University of Ghent became untenable because the reputation of their curator overpowered their ‘original’ identity. The collection’s association with fascist science prevailed over their use for legitimate research and the skulls were destroyed as a result of this fatally tainted history. Once co-opted by Soenen’s racist science, the meanings of the skulls – which had been fluid for over a hundred years – became irrevocably fixed, leading to their subsequent cleansing. Yet we argue that this physical destruction did not, and does not, inhibit the further reinterpretation of the collection and to support of our contention we turn to insights from anthropology and critical heritage studies. Scholars from these fields have conceptualized disposal as a dynamic process. They have asserted that disposal is never a singular act of closure. To get rid of something – a material thing of some kind – by no means guarantees its absolute disappearance. Rolland Munro for instance has posited that things have a tendency to linger even after their disposal, either as ideas or as material traces of what once had been.45 The history of the skulls illustrates that disposal is a dynamic process, in which ‘waste’ moves between the categories of absence and presence.46 Today, the collection is kept ‘present’ by the research on its history and the preservation of its vestiges. The curators of the medical museum of Ghent and historians have linked the stories on Soenen’s skull collection, passed down through the years, to historical traces, such as drawings, measurements and most importantly the register of the nineteenth-century convicts (and their heads). Despite their deliberate destruction, the skulls survive in an alternative form. They are materialized by their catalogue, both literally (the detailed information on the size and shape of the skulls allows for the reconstruction of their materiality) and figuratively (the list of names, for instance, evokes memories of the nineteenth-century convicts and the use of their bodies for research). Additionally, the history of the skulls shows that historians should study absent objects in their ‘extended life cycle’. As Viccy Coltman has argued, the physical disappearance of objects should not be the end of their biographies, as things can attract new meanings, even in (or because of) their material absence.47 Whereas the destruction (and the resulting absence) of the skull collection was viewed positively in the aftermath of the Second World War, curators today condemn Fautrez’s decision. Absence is not only dynamic, but also performative.48 In her groundbreaking research, Mary Douglas set forth that disposal was connected to issues of boundary and order, arguing that disposal was about getting rid of all that threatens to pollute a community. By placing unwanted things ‘outside’, groups create a sense of shared identity and belonging.49 More recently, sociologists like Kevin Hetherington have emphasized that disposal is ‘thoroughly constitutive of social and indeed ethical activity’. He posited that getting rid of unwanted things is important for the maintenance of a recognizable state of social order.50 Rodney Harrison, too, has suggested that getting rid of ‘waste’ – much like preserving heritage – is a way in which societies design their future. By differentiating between what has to be kept and what has to be thrown away, value systems are created, questioned or maintained.51 If, in this sense, disposal can be seen as an expression of change, then, in our view, the study of disposal can illuminate changing standards with regard to anatomical collections, both in the short and the long term. In the case of the phrenological skull collection, the immediate cause of their destruction was the need to disown an atrocious recent past, in which case the skulls can be seen as ‘negative heritage’. They were, following Lynn Meskell’s definition, conflictual objects that became ‘the repository of negative memory in the (collective) imaginary’.52 After the Second World War, Fautrez decided that the skulls were no longer viable for continued use recycling and he destroyed them in order to erase their most recent significance. Although the remaining archival material connects the collection to the emergence of phrenology and the sub-specialization of anatomical collections, the skulls were eventually abandoned to dismantle any link between Flemish anatomy and Nazi ideologies. The skulls thus suffered the same fate as other symbolic objects, like statues or books, often subject to destruction after regime change. Yet the disappearance of the skulls may also provide insights into long-term changes. In his essay on the ‘missing footstool’, Glenn Adamson stressed the importance of ‘absent objects’ for historians, arguing that the appearance and disappearance of objects allow for the explanation of historical (meta)narratives.53 In the same way that the dearth of surviving British domestic footstools before 1800 may tell us something about larger historical issues (like class, luxury, sexuality and the exotic), the disposal of anatomical specimens can, for example, attest to the evolution of pedagogical views, scientific theories or deontology. Most importantly, by comparing different cases in which anatomical specimens were destroyed for ethical reasons, historians might gain insight into changing cultural practices and social sensitivities regarding the preservation and display of human remains. The destruction of the Ghent phrenological collection, even though it was considered Nazi only by association, shows important parallels with the removal of specimens originating from victims of the National Socialist regime. In 1945, for example, when the Allied forces discovered the eighty-six bodies of the aforementioned Jewish skeleton collection at the anatomical institute of Strasbourg, they decided to bury the remains. The bodies could not easily be identified, as most of the heads had been removed and cremated to destroy evidence, but, struck by the enormity of the crime, the military nevertheless decided that rapid action was required and buried the remains in a mass grave, first in a communal burial ground and later in a local Jewish cemetery.54 Similarly, when a debate over the procurement of anatomical specimens from the Nazi period erupted in the Federal Republic of Germany in 1989, most universities decided to bury all specimens with an uncertain provenance in mass graves. They prioritized removal over research on provenance, because it appeared to offer closure and might thus prevent further damage to the image of anatomical institutes. As in post-war Ghent, the destruction of the specimens was meant to quickly erase a problematic past, with as little controversy as possible.55 In this way, the collections might have been cleansed, but their histories were not. As no research was done to identify the victims or to discover exactly what had happened to them, the issues of remembrance and responsibility were disregarded. Historians and public figures soon criticized the disposal of the specimens, stating that each victim deserved named commemoration as well as full documentation.56 Tellingly, a memorial sign engraved with individual names was added to the mass grave of the victims of the Jewish skeleton collection in 2005, after the historian Hans-Joachim Lang had identified them by means of their prison identity numbers.57 By comparing these (and other) cases, historians can reveal more general changes in attitudes towards anatomical specimens. Placing disposal in a longue durée perspective allows for the study of moral judgement as a historical category. The comparison between these destroyed ‘Nazi’ collections – though they may seem atypical – suggests that two key factors have gradually come to determine the deontological standards concerning anatomical collections: the ethics of procurement and the question of burial and commemoration. Both issues have undergone profound changes in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. From the late nineteenth century onwards, and especially since the Nuremberg trials, informed consent has become an increasingly important principle, both in medical ethics and before the law.58 Whereas anatomical material in the nineteenth century was mainly acquired from members of the lower classes of society without specific permission, the unauthorized collection of human tissue today is deemed ethically unacceptable. Anatomists now restrict research to bodies or body parts donated or bequeathed by the living specifically for that purpose.59 At the same time, our relationship to the dead has changed. Historians have argued that individually-marked graves reflect a Western culture of death that is increasingly personalized. Not only has the funeral become an expression of the identity of the deceased, we also commemorate the dead in more personal terms.60 The study of disposal thus allows historians to place important ethical considerations, such as the notion of consent or the importance of the deceased’s identity and last wishes, in perspective. By doing so, they may in turn properly contextualize contemporary debates on the management of anatomical collections from the past. Contemporary ethics of stewardship As the comparative study of disposal sheds light on historical changes with regard to the ethics of displaying and preserving human remains, it may help to explain contemporary differences concerning the stewardship of anatomical specimens. Today, anatomical specimens are no longer perceived as the property of one scientist or institution, but are placed under ‘collective custodianship’.61 This concept of stewardship acknowledges all actors that have an interest in a particular specimen or an entire collection: researchers, curators, donors or community. Yet museologists have also noted that standards on human remains and their preservation or disposal differ markedly in different countries.62 Whereas in some countries (such as the United Kingdom) the disposal of anatomical specimens can be considered as an ethical decision, curators in other countries (Belgium for example) continue to stress the importance of preservation and attach less importance to the cultural value of remains. The removal of a different collection of heads may help to illustrate this point. Recently, a collection of brains was relocated from a London hospital to Duffel (Belgium) in support of new neurological research on the causes of mental illness. John Corsellis, a British neuropathologist, had collected the brains from psychiatric patients in the 1950s at Runwell Hospital, Essex.63 The collection moved for the first time in 1997 to St Bernard’s Hospital, Ealing, but a shortage of accommodation there and ‘other issues’ endangered the specimens’ survival.64 As a result, more than 3,000 plastic containers with brains were shipped to a psychiatric hospital in Duffel in the summer of 2016. Scientists argued that the survival of one of the largest brain banks in the world was important for two reasons. Firstly, the conserved brains provided unique medical information on psychiatric disorders in an advanced, unaltered state, as Corsellis had collected them in an age where the use of neuroleptic drugs was still rare. Secondly, the brain bank facilitated new research on the brains of psychiatric patients. As one of the researchers explained in a Belgian national newspaper, ‘to research the brains of psychiatric patients [today] is not straightforward due to the strict regulations’.65 Though contemporary medical research and experiments on human material are rigorously governed in Belgium, there is no clear legislation on ‘historical’ human remains. This loose legal framework contrasts sharply with the strict regulations that govern the conservation of human remains in the United Kingdom, the brain bank’s place of origin. There, the Human Tissue Act (hta) of 2004 regulates the use of human tissue in medical research by requiring informed consent before collecting or researching human bodily material. This legal framework has an impact not only the contemporary collection of human tissue, but also the presence of human remains in historical museums.66 This is not the case in Belgium, where consent only governs the contemporary acquisition and preservation of human tissue. This lack of legislation on historical anatomical specimens facilitates their continued use for research and also gives curators more freedom to determine their display, use, preservation or disposal. In fact, under current Belgian legislation, curators can freely decide on the acquisition of collections (as happened with the brain bank) or their destruction (as happened with the Ghent phrenological collection in the aftermath of the war). In our view, differing decisions on the stewardship of historical anatomical specimens, like the removal of the brain bank, are not solely, or even primarily, determined by what the law prescribes (or proscribes), but attest to more general attitudes towards preserved human remains. In fact, the laws themselves are products of differing cultural practices and social sensitivities. In the United Kingdom, for example, many historical museums have removed human remains from display in recognition of a new museum culture that attempts to include diverse audiences. Museum professionals have used the hta’s legal parameters to de-accession human remains, or to answer repatriation claims from indigenous communities. Museum professionals mainly regard disposal as one of their ‘best practices’, from the perspective that it can set right past injustices.67 This way of thinking was especially evident when a controversy arose over the display of the skeleton of Charles Byrne, ‘the Irish giant’, at the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in London. The skeleton, which remains on display today, was acquired by the pre-eminent anatomist John Hunter in the eighteenth century, in contravention of the last wishes of Byrne, who wanted to be sealed in a lead coffin and buried at sea in order to avoid dissection. In 2011, law and medical ethicists, most importantly Thomas Muinzer and Len Doyal, posited that the Hunterian Museum should ‘morally rectify’ this injustice by burying the skeleton at sea at last.68 The museum director, however, claimed that the skeleton’s value for research ‘currently outweighed the benefits of carrying out Byrne’s apparent request to dispose of his remains at sea’.69 Whereas the Hunterian’s policy was subject to fierce criticism in the United Kingdom, it would probably not have been frowned upon in Belgium, where curators of historical medical collections – often scientists – continue to perceive disposal negatively. The Belgian scientists who coordinated the transaction of the British brain bank, for example, saw the ‘rescue’ of the collection as a success story. In the words of psychiatrist and neurologist Manuel Morren, the move was of paramount importance ‘as the brains otherwise would have been destroyed’, which ‘would have been a shame, because this collection is worth [its weight in] gold’.70 Apart from the continued benefits to research, the preservation of historical anatomical specimens is viewed positively as it can prompt dialogue. Curators of a recent exhibition held at the University of Ghent (Post-Mortem, 2015), for example, wanted to evoke reflections and debates on the ethics of their collections by displaying anatomical specimens to lay audiences. In their view, storing such specimens in closed, inaccessible back rooms is not ethically acceptable precisely because it is a form of disposal; in the sense that objects are put away, out of sight from a viewing public. They argue that anatomical specimens can only be properly evaluated through research and display, leading to discussions on the personal identity, cultural status and scientific utility of anatomical material in both the historical and contemporary contexts.71 This brief comparison of the ways in which the disposal of human remains is adjudicated suggests that legality is rarely the sole arbiter of their fate. Disposal can represent an ethical decision, a deplorable loss of research material or even an unethical suppression of problematic scientific heritage, and these differing approaches to stewardship in turn signify cultural differences, differences which demand better historical scrutiny. In our view, museum practices regarding human remains can be properly assessed only by placing the ethical considerations which govern them in their particular historical and cultural context. Conclusion In this article, we have argued that historians of anatomy should pay more attention to disposal. Whereas the material turn has led to a multitude of studies on anatomical collections and their meanings, the issue of disposal has gone largely unremarked. Recent research nevertheless shows that anatomists regularly discarded anatomical specimens. In fact, most of the nineteenth-century specimens preserved today were meant for display only, whilst the majority of collections – specimens for ‘handling’ – were simply exhausted or thrown away.72 By salvaging traces of these lost objects, we can take a step towards a more representative history of anatomy and also shed light on changing attitudes towards collections of preserved human remains. First and foremost, an analysis of disposal shows the limits of what historians of anatomy have called the ‘interpretative flexibility’ or ‘polysemy’ of anatomical specimens.73 The history of the Ghent phrenological collection illustrates that while preserved human remains readily lend themselves to shifting meanings – according to display, scientific framework, audience, etc. – they are not endlessly adaptable. Whereas existing research has drawn attention to physical reasons for disposal, such as decay or destructive research techniques, this article has emphasized the importance of emotional and ethical reasons as well. In cases where anatomical specimens are discarded for ethical reasons, disposal should particularly be seen as an expression of change. The absence of objects in these instances is, in our view, performative, offering historians an insight into changing social sensitivities regarding the preservation and display of human remains. Placing disposal in a comparative perspective – both chronologically and geographically – therefore enables historians to study the ethics of stewardship of human remains as cultural phenomena. This can provide insights into why some historical anatomical specimens survive (whereas most did not), as well as into contemporary differences in museum policies on the treatment of anatomical specimens from the past. Legal frameworks, such as the Human Tissue Act, or the absence of them, are influenced by the symbolic values of human remains, which continue to impact differing approaches regarding the display, preservation and disposal of anatomical collections; or as Tiffany Jenkins has argued in her study on human remains in museums: ‘[the dead] are being used to fight the battles of the living’.74 Since ethical considerations are culturally determined, they can be thoroughly assessed only within their particular context, for which the historical study of disposal is of paramount importance. By researching the circulation and reuse of human remains, historians of anatomy have been able to identify changing and context-specific meanings of human remains and anatomy. In the same way, the study of disposal will better illuminate the shifting social sensitivities governing the stewardship of anatomical collections – both in the past and today. Acknowledgements We would like to thank Kate Kangaslahti and the anonymous reviewer of Journal of the History of Collections for their invaluable suggestions. Footnotes 1 A. Appadurai (ed.), The Social Life of Things: Commodities in cultural perspective (Cambridge, 1986). 2 For example: C. Cornish, ‘Nineteenth-century museums and the shaping of disciplines: potentialities and limitations at Kew’s Museum of Economic Botany’, Museum History Journal 8 (2015), pp. 8–27. 3 James Secord, ‘Knowledge in transit’, Isis 95(2004), pp. 654–72. Sven Dupré and Christoph Lüthy for instance have built on Secord’s insights in their study: S. Dupré and C. Lüthy (eds), Silent Messengers: The circulation of material objects of knowledge in the early modern Low Countries (Berlin, 2011). 4 Examples are: C. Pirson, Corps à corps. Les modèles anatomiques entre art et médecine (Paris, 2009); S. Alberti, ‘The museum affect: visiting collections of anatomy and natural history in Victorian Britain’, in A. Fyfe and B. Lightman (eds), Science in the Marketplace. Nineteenth-century sites and experiences (Chicago, 2007), pp. 371–403; C. Stelmackowich, ‘Bodies of knowledge: the nineteenth-century anatomical atlas in the spaces of art and science’, Revue d’art canadienne/Canadian Art Review 33 (2009), pp. 75–86. 5 S. Alberti, Morbid Curiosities: Medical museums in nineteenth-century Britain (Oxford, 2011), p. 164. 6 A. Maerker, ‘Anatomizing the trade: designing and marketing anatomical models as medical technologies, ca. 1700–1900’, Technology and Culture 54 (2013), pp. 531–62. 7 For example: H. MacDonald, ‘A body buried is a body wasted: the spoils of human dissection’, in S. Ferber and S. Wilde (eds), The Body Divided: Human beings and human ‘material’ in modern medical history (Farnham, 2012), pp. 9–27; R. Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute, 2nd edn (Chicago and London, 2000), pp. 52–72. 8 On the ambiguous nature of human remains in general, and anatomical specimens in particular: E. Hallam, ‘Articulating bones: an epilogue’, Journal of Material Culture 17 (2012), pp. 465–92 and J. Troyer, ‘Embalmed vision’, Mortality: Promoting the interdisciplinary research of death and dying 12 (2007), pp. 22–47. 9 L. M. Morgan, Icons of Life: A cultural history of human embryos (Berkeley, 2009), pp. 104–22. 10 H. B. Lindskoug and A. Gustavsson, ‘Stories from below: human remains at the Gothenburg Museum of Natural History and the Museum of World Culture’, Journal of the History of Collections 27 (2015), pp. 97–109. 11 R. Knoeff and R. Zwijnenberg (eds), The Fate of Anatomical Collections (New York, 2015); K. Wils, R. De Bont and S. Au (eds), Bodies Beyond Borders: Moving anatomies, 1750–1950 (Leuven, 2017). 12 H. Huistra, ‘Preparations on the Move. The Leiden Anatomical Collections in the Nineteenth Century’ (Ph.D. diss., University of Leiden, 2013), pp. 22–31. 13 L. M. Morgan, ‘Properly disposed of. A history of embryo disposal and the changing claims on fetal remains’, Medical Anthropology 21 (2010), pp. 247–74. 14 Cf. L. Hurcombe, Perishable Material Culture in Prehistory: Investigating the missing majority (London, 2014). 15 For example: C. Fforde, J. Hubert and P. Turnbull (eds), The Dead and their Possessions: Repatriation in principle, policy and practice (London, 2002); L. Smith, ‘The repatriation of human remains: problem or opportunity?’, Antiquity 78 (2003), pp. 404–13; T. Jenkins, Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections: The crisis of cultural authority (New York, 2011). 16 G. D. Jones and M. Whitaker, ‘The contested realm of displaying dead bodies’, Journal of Medical Ethics 39 (2013), pp. 652–3. 17 D. Mareska and J. Heyman, Enquête sur le travail et la condition physique et morale des ouvriers employés dans les manufactures de coton à Gand (Ghent, 1845). 18 For example: G. Combe, ‘On the state of phrenology in South-West Germany’, Phrenological Journal and Magazine of Moral Science 18 (1845), p. 293. 19 Note concerning the phrenological collection (State Archives Brussels, Dossier concernant la collection phrénologique à la Maison de Force à Gand, t015/583, 24 October 1844). A second (popular) phrenological museum in Belgium was in the hands of Victor Idiez, who mostly displayed casts and busts: N. Barthel, Manifeste philosophique à l’occasion de la prochaine ouverture de Musée phrénologique de Bruxelles (Brussels, 1839). 20 Annales des universités de Belgique: contenant des mémoires de professeurs et d’agrégés des universités, les mémoires couronnés aux concours universitaires, des mémoires de docteurs spéciaux, et d’autres documents et pièces académiques (Brussels, 1850), pp. 828–9. 21 Catalogue des crânes recueillis dans la maison de force de Gand (Museum of the History of Medicine, Ghent). 22 C. Poelman, Catalogue des collections d’anatomie comparée y compris les ossements fossiles de l’université de Gand (Ghent, 1868), p. 8. 23 See Alberti, op. cit. (note 5), p. 7. 24 C. M. Debierre, Le crâne des criminels (Lyon, 1895), p. 4; Actes du troisième congrès international d’anthropologie criminelle tenu à Bruxelles, vol. iii (Brussels, 1893), p. 238. 25 For example: J. Dallemagne, Les stigmates anatomiques de la criminalité (Paris, 1894), pp. 36–8. On late-nineteenth-century criminal anthropology in Belgium, see: L. Beyers, ‘Rasdenken tussen geneeskunde en natuurwetenschap: Emile Houzé en de Société d’Anthropologie de Bruxelles 1882–1921’, in J. Tollebeek, G. Vanpaemel and K. Wils (eds), Degeneratie in België 1860–1940: een geschiedenis van ideeën en praktijken (Leuven, 2003), pp. 43–78. 26 R. De Bont, ‘Meten en verzoenen. Louis Vervaeck en de Belgische criminele antropologie, circa 1900–1940’, Bijdragen tot de Eigentijdse Geschiedenis 9 (2001), pp. 63–104. 27 E. Langendries and A.M. Simon-Vandermeersch, 175 jaar Universiteit Gent – Ghent University 1817–1992 (Ghent, 1992), pp. 184; D. Martin, De Rijksuniversiteit Gent tijdens de bezetting 1940–44. Leven met de vijand (Ghent, 1993), pp. 16–22. 28 W. De Raes, ‘Roger Soenen en Jan De Roeck: twee Vlaams-nationalistische artsen en rassentheoretici in het Interbellum en de Tweede Wereldoorlog’, in J. Art and L. François (eds), Docendo discimus. Liber amicorum van Romain Van Eeno (Ghent, 1999), pp. 545–87. 29 W. De Raes, ‘Roger Soenen: een Vlaams-nationalistische rassentheoreticus (1902–1977)’, Wetenschappelijke Tijdingen 61 (2002), pp. 79–86. 30 Ghent, University Archives, 207, personnel file Roger Soenen, letter from Roger Soenen to Robert Hördemann, SS-Standartenführer of Belgium and North-France, 15 February 1943. Reproduced in: Y. Louis, ‘Hoe raciale doctrines leiden tot medische experimenten en vernietigingspolitiek’, Artsenkrant (21 March 2014), pp. 12–3. 31 Brussels, Cegesoma: Centre for Historical Research and Documentation on War and Contemporary Society, ceges aa 1214/31, Pièces en relation avec le Germanischer Wissenschatseinsatz, venant du Bundesarchiv Koblenz - N.S. (collection De Jonghe), Ahnenerbe: Aussenstelle Flandern, Jahresbericht, 17 November 1944. 32 Andrew D. Evans, ‘Race made visible: the transformation of museum exhibits in early-twentieth-century German anthropology’, German Studies Review 31 (2008), pp. 87–108. 33 R. Toledano, ‘Anatomy in the Third Reich – the Anatomical Institute of the Reichsuniversität Strassburg and the deliveries of dead bodies’, Annals of Anatomy 205 (2016), pp. 128–44, at pp. 130–2; H. J. Lang, ‘August Hirt and “extraordinary opportunities for cadaver delivery” to anatomical institutes in National Socialism: a murderous change in paradigm’, Annals of Anatomy 195 (2013), pp. 373–80. 34 Evans, op. cit. (note 32), pp. 97–103. 35 For example: R. Soenen, ‘Untersuchungen über den Nasenbreite-Obergesichtshöhe-Index nach Cameron, Versuch einer Würdigung und einer Ergänzung’, Anatomische Anzeiger 70 (1930), pp. 308–19; R. Soenen, ‘Beitrag zur Morphologie des Oberkiefergerüstes’, Anatomische Anzeiger 71 (1931), pp. 94–109. 36 For instance: R. Soenen, ‘Over de rassenkundige samenstelling van het Vlaamsche volk’, DeVlag 4 (1942), pp. 392–3; R. Soenen, ‘Noordsch of Faalsch’, DeVlag 4 (1942), pp. 619–21. 37 R. Soenen, Enkele begrippen over ras- en rassenkunde (Brussels, 1943). 38 De Raes, op. cit. (note 28), p. 557. 39 Martin, op. cit. (note 27), pp. 131–50. 40 On the projection of the curator’s, collector’s or anatomist’s identity on to the specimen: R. Richardson, ‘Human remains’, in K. Arnold and D. Olsen (eds), Medicine Man: The forgotten museum of Henry Wellcome (London, 2003), pp. 319–45, on p. 342 and Alberti, op. cit. (note 5), pp. 95–8. 41 Interview with Alexander Evrard, medical student under both Roger Soenen and Julien Fautrez, 14 April 2016. 42 Alberti, op. cit. (note 5). 43 Huistra, op. cit. (note 12), p. 64. 44 Ibid., p. 65. 45 R. Munro, ‘Ideas of difference: stability, social spaces and the labour of division’, in K. Hetherington and R. Munro (eds), Ideas of Difference (Oxford, 1997), pp. 3–26. 46 Researchers working on loss and bereavement, too, have drawn attention to the interplay between absence and presence. In their view, the immaterial can only be understood in ‘material terms’, meaning that absence is made present through objects (memorabilia for example) and spaces (for instance graveyards). See for example: A. Maddrell, ‘Living with the deceased: absence, presence and absence-presence’, Cultural Geographies 21 (2013), pp. 501–22; E. Hallam, J. Hockey and G. Howarth, Beyond the Body: Death and social identity (London, 1999). 47 V. Coltman, ‘Material culture and the history of artefacts’, in A. Gerritsen and G. Riello (eds), Writing Material Culture History (London, 2015), pp. 17–33. 48 M. Meyer, ‘Placing and tracing absence: a material culture of the immaterial’, Journal of Material Culture 17 (2012), pp. 103–10, at p. 103. 49 M. Douglas, Purity and Danger, 2nd edn (London, 1984), pp. 35 et seq. 50 K. Hetherington, ‘Secondhandness: consumption, disposal and absent presence’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 22 (2004), pp.157–73, at p. 158. 51 R. Harrison, ‘Legacies and Traces: Rethinking Heritage and Waste’, Paper presented at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Brussels, 14 February 2017. 52 L. Meskell, ‘Negative heritage and past mastering in archaeology’, Anthropological Quarterly 75 (2002), pp. 557–74. 53 G. Adamson, ‘The case of the missing footstool. Reading the absent object’, in K. Harvey (ed.), History and Material Culture: A student’s guide to approaching alternative sources (London, 2009), pp. 192–207. 54 Lang, op. cit (note 33), pp. 378–9. 55 P. Weindling, ‘Cleansing anatomical collections. The politics of removing specimens from German anatomical and medical collections 1988–92’, Annals of Anatomy 194 (2012), pp. 237–42. 56 Weindling, op. cit. (note 55), pp. 240–41; P. Weindling, ‘Mensenversuche und “Euthanasie” – das Zitieren von Namen, historische Aufarbeitung und Gedenken’, in Arbeitskreis zur Erforschung der nationalsozialistischen ‘Euthanasie’ und Zwangssterilisation, Den Opfern ihre Namen geben: NS-’Euthanasie’- Verbrechen, historisch-politische Verantwortung und Erinnerungskultur (Bad Irsee, 2011), pp. 115–32. 57 H. J. Lang, Die Namen der Nummern: wie es gelang, die 86 Opfer eines NS-Verbrechens zu identifizieren (Hamburg, 2004); Lang, op. cit. (note 33), pp. 380–1. 58 The standard work on the history of consent is R. R. Faden and T. L. Beauchamp, A History and Theory of Informed Consent (Oxford, 1986). 59 On the history of anatomical donation see T. Claes, ‘By what right is the scalpel put in the pauper corpse? Dissections and consent in late nineteenth-century Belgium’, Social History of Medicine, forthcoming. 60 On the individualization of death, see for instance: R. Bertrand, Mort et mémoire. Provence,xviiie- xxe siècles, Une approche d’historien (Marseille, 2011), pp. 21–56; T. Lacqueur, The Work of the Dead: A cultural history of mortal remains (Princeton and Oxford, 2015), pp. 388–412. 61 B. Parry and C. Gere, ‘Contested bodies: property models and the commodification of human biological artefacts’, Science as Culture 15 (2006), pp. 139–58. 62 See, for example, J. Lohman and K. Goodnow (eds), Human Remains and Museum Practice (London, 2006); H. Fossheim (ed.), More than just Bones. Ethics and research on human remains (Oslo, 2013). 63 C. Overy and E. M.Tansey (eds.), The Development of Brain Banks in the UK c.1970 – c.2010 (London, 2015), pp. 85 et seq. 64 ‘Europe’s largest psychiatric brain bank is coming to Antwerp’, accessed 17 February 2017, https://www.uantwerpen.be/popup/nieuwsonderdeel.aspx?newsitem_id=2159&c=HOMEEN&n=101352 65 ‘3300 “heel interessante” hersenen van Londen naar Duffel overgebracht’, Knack (3 August 2016). 66 See, for example, UCL Human Remains Working Group, Policy, Principles and Procedures for the Care and Treatment of Human Remains at UCL (2007), accessed 21 March 2017, https://internationalrepatriation.files.wordpress.com/ 2013/04/university-college-of-london-policy-on-human-remains.pdf 67 Ibid. See also Jenkins, op. cit. (note 15), pp. 1–32, 140–46. 68 L. Doyal and T. Muinzer, ‘Should the skeleton of “the Irish giant” be buried at sea?’, British Medical Journal 343 (2011), accessed 29 March 2017, http://www.bmj.com/content/343/bmj.d7597 69 ‘Royal College of Surgeons rejects call to bury skeleton of “Irish giant”, The Guardian (22 December 2011). 70 ‘Spectaculaire transfer: 3000 hersenen verhuizen naar Antwerpen’, Gazet van Antwerpen (3 August 2016). 71 L. Maes, ‘Tentoonstellingsethiek medische collecties’, acces sed 21 March 2017, ugentmemorie.be/artikel/tentoonstellingsethiek-medische-collecties. Interestingly, similar criteria are applied by the British Museum in commissioning this kind of research in relation to claims by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre and Te Papa for Maori material. See British Museum, ‘Human remains policy’, accessed 21 March 2017, http://www.britishmuseum.org/about_us/management/human_remains/policy.aspx 72 Huistra, op. cit. (note 12). 73 Alberti, op. cit. (note 5). 74 Jenkins, op. cit. (note 15), p. 141. © The Author(s) 2017. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/open_access/funder_policies/chorus/standard_publication_model)
Journal of the History of Collections – Oxford University Press
Published: Jul 19, 2017
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