The colonial collecting zeal of European and North American explorers and travellers did not stop at human remains. Many of these collected items are still in the possession of museums, university collections or private individuals as they were collected in the service of science. Among other things, ideas of "white European superiority" and a racist worldview were to be legitimised. They also wanted to record allegedly "dying primitive" societies for posterity.
Research findings often served colonial exploitative interests. Today, many questions are asked in this context: Where do the objects in museums and collections come from? Is their ownership legitimate in the hands of these institutions? Can human remains be treated according to the same exhibition criteria as objects? How should they be dealt with? What does the possession of these "objects" mean for the people concerned, and their descendants?
"By facing up to their responsibility, museums and university collections make an important contribution to current social challenges. They sensitise people to historical contexts, dependencies and legacies as well as to the persistence of racialising and colonial patterns of thought in the present" (Brandstetter/Hierholzer 2017: 25).
The exhibition "Bodies in the Basement - Human Remains between Restitution and Whereabouts" addresses such questions around the sensitivity of human remains in museums and collections. We deal with various problems of ethical ways of working with human remains. Different strategies for dealing with human remains range from repatriation and exhibition to storage in depots. We will discuss these issues on the basis of four Viennese case studies: the World Museum Vienna, the Natural History Museum Vienna, the Egyptian-Oriental Collection of the Art History Museum Vienna and the Ethnographic Collection of the Institute for Cultural and Social Anthropology at the University of Vienna.
We invite visitors to engage with the unlawful appropriation of human remains in colonial contexts. We ask how museums and collections relate to historical colonial power relations. The aim of the exhibition is to stimulate a reappraisal of the circumstances of the acquisition of human remains. Demands by museum associations and academics for intensive and critical examination of origins and conditions of appropriation must be followed by action. Likewise, the calls for increased transparency as well as dialogue and cooperation with societies of origin must not remain empty words. Profit and prestige must not be the guiding motives for dealing with human remains. The focus should be on respect for people, reflection and moral behavior. We want to raise awareness about the sensitivity of human remains in museum and university collections. To underline this ethical issue, we focus on human remains in this exhibition without turning them into objects themselves. We deal with the subject of human remains without showing any. In doing so, we emphasise that they are human beings.
Where do the human remains in museums and university collections come from?
What are the options for dealing with human remains?What could happen to the "bodies in our basement"?