Favourite human remains collections (Ep. 1 in Anatomical bodies/collections series)

This is the first post in what announces to be a series on Anatomical bodies/collections (see intro) – I thought it is only appropriate to draft my thoughts in a more systematic manner given that I’ve been immersed in the world of dead bodies on display for quite a while now.

Of course there are many available resources online on the topic, from collections databases (see also Atlas Obscura’s compendium), to site/ city specific excavated individuals archives (such as Museum of London’s). There is also a wide variety of cases that come under the term of human remains collections, from archaeologically excavated materials – such as the Human Comparative collection of the Natural History Museum in London, to themed assemblages, like the Museo di Antropologia Criminale Cesare Lombroso – Università di Torino, The Helmer Collection at the Center for Anatomy & Human Identification at the University of Dundee (comprising twelve skulls with the antemortem facial photographs, useful for facial reconstructions), or medical museums like the Berlin Museum of Medical History at the Charité. One can find fleshed bodies (see Barts Pathology Museum – Queen Mary University of London), wax models (La Specola Anatomical Collection in Florence) or écorchés (with displays at Museum Boerhaave or Whipple Museum of the History of Science, Cambridge)


Photo by Rob Koopman from Leiderdorp, Netherlands (Flickr)

But in this wide array of materials and resources, some stand out for me, for certain personal or academic reasons. The topic of a body as part of a wider assemblage of bodies/mediums of representation lies itself at the cross road of multiple themes and concerns, from ‘advocacy’ – taking care of past collections and preserving them for the future, to ethical issues, from history of science to anthropologies of the body. All of this will be reflected in the posts to follow in the series, but they also make up the reasons why I chose 3 specific collections.

  1. The osteological collection of Francisc I. Rainer (Bucharest, Romania)

The first choice is the collection of the Institute of Anthropology Francisc I. Rainer. The origin of the collection whose biography is linked with the beginnings of anthropological research is Romania dates back to the early 1900s, continuing until the 1950s, with a main core originating from the 1930–1940 period. It currently consists of approximately 6800 well-preserved human skulls and postcranial specimens. The human remains were gathered from 33 institutions – hospitals, and morgues. Most individuals were of lower socio-economic background: peasants, workers, beggars, prostitutes. Besides these specimens, there are also papers and class notes of Professor Rainer’s, anthropological photographs taken during field campaigns, casts of human types, and samples of human tissue, X-rays and anatomical drawings (you can read more here).

I chose this collection not only because being among these displayed heads probably contributed greatly to my interest in the history of human remains collections, but because of the lessons learnt here. Firstly, even though the documentation is scarce, the juxtaposition between the remains, their labels (often inscribed in ink on the bone surface), and other medical stories found among the papers (see The story of Paraschiva Candoiu, the lady with no hands)  makes one reflect on past scientific world-views & their influence on present practice.  Thus, such a collection-archive bears within in folded layers of memories of lives intersecting and affecting each other, from the story of a tattooed man whose chest piece was preserved, to an old sculptor who ended up in the collection in 1932, or the skull of an individual shot in the 1877-1878 war of independence. In this way, being among the remains, one has to think of what came of these bodies, and of the events which led to them being brought together under the same roof.


Source of images antropologia.ro


Source of left image EdituraMateescu.ro.


‘L’art de la cire au service de l’anatomie humaine’ at Musee de l’Homme (Paris, France)

Earlier this year I’ve finally had the opportunity of visiting the well renown Musee de l’Homme in Paris. Among various anatomised bodies, tattooed faces or plaster casts, there is a small exhibition space on wax modelling and its role in the history of human anatomy. I thought this was a very good display, standing out among others, for several reasons: it is small, and the specimens do not overwhelm you, plus they can each stand out on their own; it is designed with the goal of introducing to the general public the intertwined relationship between anatomy-art-different means of modelling the human body throughout centuries; the set up is nicely done, the lighting and the elegant black cases merging with the eerie character of this specimens- past and present coming together, similar to the man made substances merging with the organic bones which are on display.



The Gordon Museum of Pathology (London, UK)

One of the largest pathology museums in the world, and part of King’s College London is a different kind of collection, and I chose it for what it represents: a teaching collection. Its approximately 8000 pathological specimens, models and paintings date from the 17th century until the 20th. While still retaining the historical air of an era when bodies where collected as archival pieces or curiosities, the collection here is one which has a very dynamic postmortem existence- closely tied up with the teaching of young medical professionals. From the period architecture and set up of rooms and specimens, to the modern museum’s augmented reality app and the anatomy conferences which take place in its midst, this is a space in which death is used for teaching the living.


Thus, what I’ve tried to illustrate through the three cases, was that when talking about human remains collection it is not about ‘the appeal’ of dead bodies or voyeuristic/grotesque inclinations (as one sometimes encounters unfortunately, and which only contribute to objectifying them), but it is a matter of what to make of them, the stories they hold and the lessons they teach us.  It’s the lesson of listening and reflecting that ties them together – ultimately it is a personal encounter, but one which falls within larger discussions on the fate and use of anatomical collections. But more on this is the future.

In 2 weeks time: Episode 2. Favourite texts on the history & fate of human remains collections (and the key issues each raises)

PS: When researching for this post, I came across this image from the Galerie d’Anatomie comparée at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle (Paris). No comments needed I guess:


© Catherine Ficaja, Source: here.



One thought on “Favourite human remains collections (Ep. 1 in Anatomical bodies/collections series)

  1. Pingback: Episode 2. Favourite texts on human remains collections (Ep. 2 in Anatomical bodies/collections series) | Bodies and academia

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