Museum and Heritage

BOOK REVIEW Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections: The Crisis of Cultural Authority

Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections: The Crisis of Cultural Authority by Tiffany Jenkins argues that the support of repatriation of human remains from within the museum sector is symptomatic of new museological theory.[1] Jenkins’s book addresses the social and political mood in which the repatriation movement was born and outlines the motivations behind both pro- and anti-repatriation activists. It discusses the politicisation of the body before finally outlining how these concepts tie into and are supported by new museological theory – in particular how the theory critiques the museum as creator of authenticity and as a cultural authority. Contesting Human Remains is written from a purely British viewpoint, and the rhetoric invoked by Jenkins reads as imperialistic. This review will demonstrate how her lack of understanding of an indigenous epistemology highlights her ignorance while simultaneously undermining her arguments against repatriation. Furthermore it will show that although Jenkins’s book outlines key debates and theories within the repatriation movement, ultimately her argument regarding the relationship of repatriation and new museological theory is a moot point.

The introduction of Contesting Human Remains sketches the history of human remains as collection items in relation to colonisation: from curiosities, to ethnographic and archaeological conservations of dying races, to scientific research tools.[2]  Chapter one expands on the introduction by giving a critical reading of the social environment in which the repatriation issue was born. Notably post-colonisation theory and the rise in social support for Native American Indian and Australian Aboriginal land rights movements, which prompted debates around colonisation, identity and cultural heritage, feature prominently here.[3] Indigenous groups became aware that their inability to present or control their cultural artefacts impacted their spirituality, identity, history and sovereignty.[4] However Jenkins states that the number of requests for the return of items from indigenous groups is actually low.[5] She argues that the issue of repatriation, although initially raised by overseas groups, got traction in Britain because of “issue entrepreneurs” who “piggyback” on more publically conscious issues such as the Alder Hey controversy.[6] Jenkins frames this as a negative and manipulative act, when realistically the Alder Hey controversy aided in setting the correct social and moral conditions in which repatriation could be accepted as a legitimate issue.

Museum academics, professionals and activists, frame repatriation as therapeutic and consolatory practice aimed at righting some wrongs of past colonial collecting.[7] Jenkin contends that there is little to no research that backs these claims.[8] I would suggest Jenkins read some of the articles written by Professor Paul Tapsell on the role of taonga from a tribal perspective. Tapsell leaves the reader in no doubt over the importance of sacred taonga within indigenous communities, in this case specifically Māori ones, stating that it “elicits a strong emotional response based upon ancestral experiences, settings and circumstances”.[9] Indeed, Jenkins takes issue with the term repatriation itself, which she states is value-laden and implies the remains or artefacts have a rightful home to be returned to. This, Jenkins argues, is misleading as it is common for the provenance of remains within museum collections to be unknown. However this does little to dispute the claim for repatriation in so much as it highlights the atrocious conditions under which much material was collected.

In chapter two Jenkins gives an outline of those who are anti-repatriation, namely scientists and archaeologists. Seemingly the core of the argument is around how indigenous groups cannot legitimately claim rights over human remains based on ideas of biological and cultural descent; these elements, they argue, are not fixed but fluid.[10] They also hold a very Western viewpoint regarding notions of ancestry, claiming that most bodies are old and as such it is not possible to credit a relationship between human remains and indigenous people today.[11] This ignores the fact that the majority of bodies contested by groups are only between 100-200 years old.[12] Simultaneously, they also plead to a shared global history.[13] A diversity of material, scientists say, enables ground breaking research, returning the ‘specimens’ to indigenous groups for reburial is inflicting catastrophic loss upon the scientific community.[14] The methods under which they were collected are absolved by their contribution to science. For these scientists the ends most definitely justify the means.

Originally the museums refused requests for the return of human remains based on de-succession laws set in the British Museum Act of 1963.[15] This lead to repatriation supporters campaigning for a law change.[16] The British Government supported this move by creating the Working Group on Human Remains (WGHR) who in turn produced a report that recommended a law change around the holding of human remains in museums.[17] Jenkins rightly admonishes the selection bias of WGHR members, which contained no archaeologists. However the selection bias of the WGHR shows that support for repatriation was not driven solely from museum insiders as Jenkins claims, but is instead proof that the government was ensuring the report was in line with the socio-political environment. The law that was formed from the WGHR’s report was the Human Tissue Act 2004 (HTA). The HTA regulates the removal, storage and use of human tissue. It also expands on the idea of consent, stating that lack of protest was not tantamount to permission, in the process legally addressing concerns over the circumstances in which remains were collected.[18]

This second half of the second chapter was fascinating as a student to read and gave insightful depth to the discussion. The law itself, although a positive step for repatriation, is not flawless and opens up debates of its own. Chapter four focuses on this problem by framing it around pagan claim makers, most notably the society for Honouring the Ancient Dead (HAD). Through neo-paganism, HAD claim to have a vested and legitimate interest in the ancient remains held in British Museums, raising questions over who decides when interest groups are legitimate and where (and indeed, if) a line needs to be drawn.[19]

From Lenin to feminism, from being a reinforcement of the status quo to a forum for protest, the body has long been a political tool.[20] Holding no inherent meaning, the dead body acts as a canvas for conflicting constructs of meaning by differing interest groups.[21] Understanding that the body can be used symbolically is part of Jenkins’s debate, however what she fails to realise is that constructed meanings can flow in both directions. Jenkins argues that the pro-repatriation movement assembled meanings of humanity which they projected onto human remains, aiding their recognition as an aspect of identity politics, and contributing to the “crisis of cultural authority” within the museum sector.[22] In contrast, one could argue the history of the museums’ collection and display of human remains constructs and maintains notions of colonial power, as do scientists’ claims of universality. Herein lies Jenkins’s issue with new museological theory, as it undermines her core arguments for universal scientific claims to human remains based on notions of them contributing to a greater good.[23] As she laments it is “contributing to a professional activism and weak resistance”.[24] Calls for repatriation threaten Jenkins precisely because they question previous assumptions of authority.

Contesting Human Remains does provide value to the museum student as it gives a good historical, social and political context to the repatriation debate, however the reader must bear in mind it is framed within the author’s imperialistic rhetoric. New museology is concerned with the redistribution of power, especially around representation. By questioning notions of authority and authenticity new museology aims to work with communities and minority groups. Ultimately new museology aims towards inclusion and social justice, opening up the museum to new dialogues and partnerships with a wider range of people. Previously these discussions were kept to the realms of the social elite and partnerships were made with the cultural majority[25]. The subtitle of the book – “a Crisis of Cultural Authority” – refers to the primary theme of Jenkins’s argument, claiming the questioning of the cultural authority within the museum sector is a crisis. This crisis is manifesting through requests for repatriation of Human remains, not only from indigenous groups but museum professionals. However I argue that Jenkins’s argument against and resistance to repatriation is itself a reaction to the loss of cultural authority. By grasping on to indigenous bodies she is grasping to the last remnants of the British Empire.




Gorman, Joshua M. “Universalism and the new museology: impacts on the ethics of authority and ownership.” Museum Management and Curatorship 26:2 (2011): 149-162.

Henning, Michelle. Museums, Media and Cultural Theory. Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2006.

Jenkins, Tiffany. Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections: The Crisis of Cultural Authority. New York: Routledge, 2011.

Stam, Deirdre C. “The informed muse: the implications of ‘The New Museology’ for museum practice.” In Heritage, Museums and Galleries: An Introductory Reader, edited by Gerard Corsane, 54-70. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Tapsell, Paul. “The flight of Pareraututu: An investigation of taonga from a tribal perspective.” The Journal of Polynesian Society 106:4 (1997): 323-374

[1] Tiffany Jenkins, Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections: The Crisis of Cultural Authority (New York: Routledge, 2011), 141.

[2] Jenkins, Contesting Human Remains, 3.

[3] Jenkins, Contesting Human Remains, 12.

[4] Joshua M. Gorman, “Universalism and the new museology: impacts on the ethics of authority and ownership,” Museum Management and Curatorship 26:2 (2011): 152.

[5] Jenkins, Contesting Human Remains, 13.

[6] Jenkins, Contesting Human Remains, 26.

[7] Jenkins, Contesting Human Remains, 20.

[8] Jenkins, Contesting Human Remains, 23.

[9] Paul Tapsell, “The flight of Pareraututu: An investigation of taonga from a tribal perspective,” The Journal of Polynesian Society 106:4 (1997): 326.

[10] Jenkins, Contesting Human Remains, 35.

[11] Jenkins, Contesting Human Remains, 34.

[12] Jenkins, Contesting Human Remains, 36.

[13] Jenkins, Contesting Human Remains, 37.

[14] Jenkins, Contesting Human Remains, 38-39.

[15] Jenkins, Contesting Human Remains, 43.

[16] Jenkins, Contesting Human Remains, 46.

[17] Jenkins, Contesting Human Remains, 47.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Jenkins, Contesting Human Remains, 79-83.

[20] Jenkins, Contesting Human Remains, 106.

[21] Jenkins, Contesting Human Remains, 107.

[22] Jenkins, Contesting Human Remains, 121.

[23] Michelle Henning, Museums, Media and Cultural Theory (Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2006), 115.

[24] Jenkins, Contesting Human Remains, 121.

[25] Deirdre C. Stam, “The informed muse: the implications of ‘The New Museology’ for museum practice” in Heritage, Museums and Galleries: An Introductory Reader, ed. Gerard Corsane (New York: Routledge, 2005), 61.

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