Old Bones, Digital Narratives: Re-investigating the Cornwall Collection in the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum

I just realized that while I had posted about this over at the Dilmun (was Bahrain) Bioarchaeology project blog, I hadn’t linked it to my main blog. I wrote this for the UMAC (University Museums and Collections) conference that is being held here at UC Berkeley next week.  The paper itself has four authors, but I took the lead on it. Here’s the abstract:

A joint team of archaeologists from the University of California, Berkeley and Sonoma State University are examining a collection of artifacts and skeletal material excavated in Bahrain and Eastern Saudi Arabia in the 1940s and curated in the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum.  This collection has hereto remained un-investigated since the time of Cornwall’s Harvard dissertation.  Motivated by modern innovations in the examination of skeletal materials and a greater awareness of broader Near Eastern history, we are considering this collection from a contemporary bioarchaeological perspective as well as in terms of the personal history of Peter B. Cornwall and his team. During this process we have attempted to raise public interest in the project, while remaining sensitive to the issues regarding the depiction and documentation of the remains of past peoples.  In making our research methodology more transparent through this digital documentation and presentation, we hope to distribute awareness of the Cornwall collection across a number of online platforms in a non-traditional format.  In this paper we critically examine the tensions between access to museum collections and respectful digital remediation of assemblages involving human remains.

Pretty standard stuff, right? Well, I’ve had to address a few more issues that have come up since. The Phoebe A. Hearst museum was last in the news in late 2008 when the unit handling some of the Native American human remains was disbanded. There is continuing protest and interest in related matters being blogged about here. At the time, many of the graduate students did not really know what was going on (with a few exceptions) and we were told a few different stories.

Fast-forward to a couple of weeks ago, when the San Francisco Chronicle ran a front-page story on Japanese war dead remains that were in the museum, in apparent contradiction to the Geneva conventions. And, indeed, article 17 of the Geneva Convention of 1949 states that the war dead must be honorably interred and their graves must be respected.

I did not expect that I’d be citing international humanitarian law when I wrote up my little abstract last year, and I’m still trying to sort out exactly how to contextualize our research on 4,000 year old human remains from Dilmun tumuli in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia within this dialogue on museum ethics.  The good people over at the Museum Anthropology blog have a great series of posts on the topic, (here, here, and here) and end with a very valid question: Why do people think so differently about Native American human remains?

I am certainly not the best equipped person to answer the question, but I feel like it’s an issue that anyone working in North America has to contend with. While I don’t work in the States for my dissertation, two summers ago I took some contract work with a local company that is part owned by a member of one of the local tribes and excavated prehistoric Native American remains in a rescue context. These remains were later buried. I don’t really have a problem with what I did, other than some of the methodology employed–I would have liked to excavate the site more generally and more fully, so we could understand the context of the burials a bit better. Some of my colleagues state that they’d never excavate human remains, in North America or anywhere else in the world.

So, like so many other things, it’s complicated. We’ve drafted an ethics statement for our research on the collection and it has made us ask some hard questions about the recovery of these bones and stakeholders who may be interested in our research. I’ll post the entire paper later if possible–it’s going to be published in the proceedings and some publishers are still hesitant to have pre-prints available on the web.

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3 responses to “Old Bones, Digital Narratives: Re-investigating the Cornwall Collection in the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum

  1. This is an issue, or set of issues, that has presumably been current for a while but having recently read something about it I’m now seeing it everywhere. Especially the ‘Native American remains cf. others elsewhere’ question. But what on earth can the osteological justification for keeping the remains of modern Japanese people in the USA be? Surely that’s a skeletal profile that is well-known and well-published. I’m surprised the museum in question ever accessioned objects that were so likely to cause trouble for so little likely use.

    • I’m actually quite surprised that the Navy doctor that donated them to the museum got all the way back to the states with the skeletons and I have no idea how they got into the museum.

      To be fair, whistle-blowers within the museum have been trying to address this for at least a year, if not longer.

  2. Pingback: on ethics, museums, and human remains « History of the Early Andes

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