“The Irish giant” and the questions haunting medical museumsBMJ 2023; 381 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.p1221 (Published 30 May 2023) Cite this as: BMJ 2023;381:p1221
- Órla O’Donovan, senior lecturer
The remains of Charles Byrne, known as the “Irish giant,” have become the subject of public discussion once more, reviving debates that continue to haunt medical and scientific museums. Instead of engaging in futile efforts to achieve closure on their colonial histories, museums must learn to live with the spectres of their past injustices that persist to the present. Decolonial scholars, such as Eve Tuck and C Ree, emphasise that being haunted by these injustices is the cost of the horrors and subjugations of colonisation and museums’ role in this; it is “the relentless remembering and reminding that will not be appeased by settler society’s assurances of innocence and reconciliation.”1 Museums must accept that they are haunted by their past by acknowledging and living with their colonial history, which they cannot resolve, forget, or hide.
The Hunterian Museum at London’s Royal College of Surgeons of England has just reopened after refurbishment. The controversial remains of Byrne, who had acromegaly and died in 1783, will no longer be on public display. But his skeleton will be retained by the museum for scientific use. Byrne’s skeleton joins the myriad other troubling human remains that were once used as scientific spectacles but have since been removed from public display. Among these are the remains of a woman called Sarah Baartman, who became known as “the Hottentot Venus,” which were once displayed in Parisian museums as colonial, pseudoscientific evidence of her “less-than-human status.”2 Her remains were returned to South Africa in 2002—before the recent rise of decolonisation movements—after a decade long campaign for their repatriation. Repatriating remains, removing them from public view, or both does not resolve their painful pasts, but it does serve as a reminder that remains that were once objectified as museum specimens can be historically reconfigured. They can become evidence that points to the colonial mindsets and the exploitative conditions within which scientific knowledge was produced.
The Hunterian Museum is named after John Hunter, the 18th century Scottish surgeon, anatomist, and collector of specimens. By the time of his death in 1793, he had amassed almost 14 000 specimens.3 Much of the controversy about Byrne’s skeleton has centred on Hunter and the museum’s disregard for Byrne’s reported wish to be buried at sea to avoid an afterlife as a medical curiosity. Contributing to the longstanding dispute, a 2011 feature in The BMJ reanimated ethical debates about the rights of individuals to determine what happens to their bodies after death.4
Since that article’s publication, decolonisation movements have gained force internationally, generating questions that go beyond the rights of individuals. What are the legacies of colonialist regimes of extraction, instrumentalisation, and dehumanisation that worked across institutions, including museums? How have museums contributed to the dominance of Eurocentric scientific knowledge and the discrediting and erasure of other forms of knowledge? Can museums be decolonised, and if so, how?
In November 2022, 15 years after it first opened, the Wellcome Collection announced the closure of its Medicine Man exhibition. Prompting backlash accusations of “wokeness,” Wellcome had concluded that the exhibition told a history “in which disabled people, Black people, Indigenous peoples, and people of colour were exoticised, marginalised, and exploited—or even missed out altogether.”5 The announcement concluded by inviting readers to respond to the question “What’s the point of museums?”
The point of the Hunterian Museum suggested by its website is education about the history of medicine and support of medical research. A 2023 statement from the museum’s trustees explains that the retention of Byrne’s skeleton rests on their recognition of its status as a rare osteological specimen and commitment to ensuring its availability for research into gigantism.6 On the question that will not go away about the museum’s disregard for Byrne’s burial wish, the trustees acknowledge that anecdotal references to his wishes are well documented, “although no written evidence exists.” The museum’s decision to launch a programme called Hunterian Provocations to “explore issues around the display of human remains and the acquisition of specimens during British colonial expansion” will potentially provoke further discussion of its decision to retain the skeleton.
The future of medical museums
Medical museums must consider the ethical and existential concerns facing them. One such issue is that, because medical museums uphold a highly restricted understanding of evidence that privileges written records, those absent from the archives are exluded in histories of medicine. Another question is what limits, if any, should be placed on the retention of remains and whether their scientific usefulness is enough to justify retaining them. This relates to wider decolonisation efforts that encourage museums to recognise how their collections point to colonial imaginaries and racist ideologies of colonised people. Museums can cultivate new ways of seeing human remains that go beyond anatomy and pathology and consider the conditions and power structures that enabled remains to be converted into medical specimens.
Medical museums can be repurposed to recognise what decolonisation scholar Achille Mbembe argues has been crucial to the history of colonial capitalism: “the compulsion to categorise, to separate, to measure and to name, to classify.”7 Crucially, this includes highlighting museums’ contributions to the history of the category “human” and the classification and use of some people as less than human, bolstered by dehumanising colonial ideologies and race science.
The questions haunting medical museums are deeply unsettling, challenging, and complex. The rush to resolution must be resisted. Instead, we must learn to live with and acknowledge these museums’ inextinguishable and persistent traces of coloniality and exploitation that cannot be buried and laid to rest, even at sea.
Competing interests: none declared.
The ideas in this opinion piece are informed by extended conversations with members of the University College Cork based Living Well with the Dead research collective.