Welcome to Thanatocorpus

a blog dedicated to the study of medical collections of human remainsĀ 

Thanatology + Corpus Definition Graphic #2

About the Project

This website is the online platform for the medical humanities research project Looking, Feeling, Knowing: The Politics of Seeing in Medical Collections of Human Remains After the Human Tissue Act, led by Dr. Gemma Angel at UCL Institute of Advanced Studies, and working in collaboration with UCL Pathology Museum, the Museum of the History of Science, Technology & Medicine at the University of Leeds, and the Thackray Medical Museum.

Practices of post-mortem dissection, preservation and display of the human body are an integral part of modern medical education, training and research, requiring medical professionals to work directly with human remains. However, the treatment and disposal of the dead within medical contexts is also an ethical and cultural issue of broader public significance that has historically been a source of political conflict within the UK. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, a combination of medical scandals, controversial public exhibitions of human remains, and claims for repatriation by source communities of colonial-era remains held in British museums, served to sensitize public attitudes and professional approaches to human remains in the UK. The visibility of human remains in particular has played a significant role within these debates and their political enactment. This confluence of factors led to the passing of the Human Tissue Act (HTA) in 2004, which has since had far-reaching consequences for the work of medical professionals, as well as for historic medical collections of human remains, including those held in university medical departments, prompting a new approach to their handling, storage and display.

This project sets out to explore the complex political entanglements of looking, affective response and medical knowledge within the medical museum, focusing on the impact of the 2004 HTA legislation on the professional practice of pathologists, anatomists and curators of medical collections. A key principle of the act is that all human bodies, body parts and tissue are treated with dignity and respect, and informed consent forms the cornerstone of the legislation. The act principally regulates the removal, storage, use and disposal of human bodies, organs and tissue, including public display; but significantly does not cover photography or electronic images of human remains. Despite this, many institutions have adopted their own guidelines that strictly regulate both the viewing and visual documentation or dissemination of human material.

These new professional guidelines have established a regulatory framework in which the interaction of staff with human material is governed, creating new spatial, affective and discursive paradigms. The viewing of human remains, for example, may be further restricted through the shrouding of archive storage cabinets and the construction of concealed shelving in teaching spaces. The new discursive paradigm frequently emphasizes the ‘potency’ of human remains and their status as individual subjects or persons, rather than specimens, recommending that handlers adopt a ‘sense of mental propriety’ in their work, and that storage and display spaces reflect and encourage an appropriate degree of respect. This has meant that historic medical and ethnographic collections of human material are now stored together under the new overarching category ‘human remains’. These reconfigurations reflect a tension between the valorisation of human remains as sacred materials, and the secular medical context in which they are enmeshed.

Consequently, human remains have acquired a newly taboo status amongst many heritage sector professionals. These guidelines often ignore the specific working contexts of the medical teaching museum and dissection lab, however, in which the treatment of preserved human remains precisely as specimens arises not from a lack of respect for the dead but as an integral part of professional practice. As a result, responses to the new culture surrounding human remains have varied and tensions persist. In some cases, the wholesale disposal or incineration of historic collections of human remains has been carried out by institutions anxious about the ethical status of unprovenanced specimens in their care. Other institutions, such as UCL, have absorbed some of these unwanted collections, and have gradually recognised their importance for both medical teaching and heritage.

Human remains within these contexts are politically and ethically charged objects, around which new discourses and narrative histories are continually generated. Drawing upon theoretical approaches from anthropology and science and technology studies, and combining ethnographic and historical research methods, the project will investigate shifting discursive and material practices surrounding human remains, tracing how the political and ethical status of these materials emerges not from properties inherent within the objects, but from the socio-political fields in which they are enacted and made to ‘matter’.