Episode 2. Favourite texts on human remains collections (Ep. 2 in Anatomical bodies/collections series)

[..] especially from the sixteenth century onwards, [anatomists] have
developed a wide range of techniques for preserving, modelling and displaying
bodies and parts thereof. To arrest putrefaction after death, bodies have been dried
or immersed in fluid, and to exhibit various aspects of these bodies practitioners
have engaged in such work as sculpting, inflating, injecting, macerating, painting,
sewing, drawing and writing. […]  Given the processes of their production and use, however, these entities are neither discrete (clearly bounded) nor completed; rather they are open, caught up in relations with further material entities and with people in ways that shape their matter and meanings over time (Hallam forthcoming).
(2014  ‘Anatomopoeia’ in E. Hallam and T. Ingold (Eds) Making and Growing: 
Anthropological studies of Organisms and Artefacts, Farnham: Ashgate, pp.65-88.)

Human remains collections, may them be anatomical, archaeological, or pathological (see here previous post on the favourite collections) are caught between disciplines and approaches: in March the ‘Skeletons, Stories & Social Bodies’ Conference gathered archaeologists, anatomists and forensic specialists, an upcoming session on Bodies in the archive is part of the EASA Medical Anthropology Network, and a conference in Cambridge in September will look at anthropology and its materialities as part of a history of science approach. This situation leads to a multitude of studies, monographs or lavishly illustrated coffee table books, which makes the task of choosing some a difficult one. Even so, for this post I picked a couple of texts which stayed with me over the years- either they approach the topic in an original manner, they offer a comprehensive overview, or they introduce questions which guided me in my own endeavours.

  • The first one I should mention is the collective volume edited by Elizabeth Hallam and Samuel J.M.M. Alberti (2013), Medical Museums: Past, Present, Future. London: Royal College of Surgeons of England. In 17 chapters, the reader gets a brief panorama of human remains collections from throughout Europe and the US- ‘Every museum has its own story’ as Francesco Paolo de Ceglia wrote in his review of the book, and this is exactly the strength of the book, alongside its great combination of text and archival/contemporary images of the specimens in question. If one is looking for an introductory book on the topic, here is where I’d start.

If then one wants to go more in depth, then there are several other titles, e,g.

Samuel Alberti (2011). Morbid Curiosities: Medical Museums in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Elizabeth Hallam (2016). Anatomy Museum: Death and the Body Displayed. London: Reaktion Books.

Rina Knoeff, and Robert Zwijnenberg (2015). The Fate of Anatomical Collections. Ashgate.

(and a more accessible title, with some great illustrations) Paul Koudounaris (2011). The Empire of Death. A cultural history of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses.  Thames and Hudson.

  • My second choice is, again, signed by Elizabeth Hallam, and it is her chapter from which I’ve extracted the quote above-  ‘Anatomopoeia’ in E. Hallam and T. Ingold (Eds) Making and Growing: Anthropological studies of Organisms and ArtefactsFarnham: Ashgate, 2014, pp.65-88. This is one of the most original approaches I’ve encountered so far: the author looks at a series of models realised by David Hugh Tompsett at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, but does it by tackling the ‘poetics of science’, that is seeing model making as an organic process of relational growth. As Hallam writes, ‘These trees were models enmeshed in relations of ‘kin’ among materials, casts and practitioners; they materialized not only human anatomy but also connections between generations of experts” (p.83).

Resin cast of lungs. Source: University of Edinburgh, here. 

Further reading on the making of anatomical specimens:

Marieke M. A. Hendriksen (2015). Elegant Anatomy. The Eighteenth-Century Leiden Anatomical Collections. Leiden: Brill.  –

Erich Brenner, “Human body preservation—old and new techniques”. Journal of Anatomy, 2014, 224: 316–344

C. Degueurce, and t. b. P.  Adds (2010), The celebrated écorchés of honoré Fragonard, part 1: The classical techniques of preparation of dry anatomical specimens in the 18th century. Clin. Anat., 23: 249–257.

(and on wax models) R. Ballestriero (2010). Anatomical models and wax Venuses: art masterpieces or scientific craft works? Journal of Anatomy. 216(2):223-234.


  • Then I would choose Carin Berkowitz’s study from 2013,“Systems of display: the making of anatomical knowledge in Enlightenment Britain.” The British
    Journal for the History of Science 46 (3): 359-387. This article helped me look at collections from a different point of view: the idea of a collection seen as an oriented and structured goal subsumed to research methods and questions and linked to specific display strategies.  In other words, placing the anatomists in their wider disciplinary networks, decoding the rules that led to a particular series of specimens to be collected, and then assembled as a visual archive. In this way, the analysis moves from individual specimens to the whole assemblage, from the scientist to a wider visual culture, paradigm of collecting or fragmenting the body. Through studies focused on the fate of dissected body parts and the interrelationships between medical teaching and the creation of such displays, researchers have explored the history of collecting and dissecting human bodies, of gazing, commodifying and learning from “naked” bodies and anatomical preparations.

Source:Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin

Other works focused on visualising anatomical materialities:

Carin Berkowitz (2011). The beauty of anatomy: visual displays and surgical education in early nineteenth-century London. Bulletin of the History of Medicine 85, pp. 248- 271.

Simon Chaplin (2008) “Nature dissected, or dissection naturalized? The case of John Hunter’s museum.” Museum and Society 6(2): 135-151.

Nick Hopwood (2015). Haeckel’s Embryos: Images, Evolution and Fraud (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015). 8.5” x 11”, viii + 388 pp., 202 colour plates.

(and a more general overview) Benjamin A. Rifkin, Michael J. Ackerman, Judith Folkenberg (2011). Human Anatomy: Depicting the Body from the Renaissance to Today, 344 pages. Thames and Hudson Ltd.

Lastly, there are the titles dealing with ethical issues, of which I will mention A. Svestad’s critique from 2013 on the current framing of the reburial issue: What happened in Neiden? On the question of reburial ethics, Norwegian archaeological review 46(2), 194–222. Quoting Kieran Cashell (2007, 346), I believe that ‘precisely understanding the continued presence of the dead absentee for the living “survivor” . . . constitutes the philosophical problem of death’. A lot of the earlier and current debates on ethics in osteoarchaeology have avoided engaging in a deeper intellectual discussion and critical reflection on the topic, as has been rightly pointed out by Svestad: reburial can objectify and silence remains in the same way as any other practice.

Thus, as Michael Sappol asks in a recent review: “What should we do with anatomical collections and their specimens, models, jars, vitrines, storage and exhibition spaces? They were once made, and re-made, and remadeagain. What should we ‘make’ of them now?”. Besides, or better said alongside understanding their creation, history and use throughout time, the important question remains: how are we to engage with them now, in a meaningful way for us, but also for the individuals in the collections?

Further references on the topic:

Vicky Cassman, N. Odegaard, J. Powell (eds. 2007). Human remains: Guide for museums and academic institutions. Lanham: Altamira Press.

Tiffany Jenkins (2010) Contesting human remains in museum collections. The crisis of cultural authority, New York.

Duncan Sayer (2010). Ethics and burial archaeology, London (Debates in Archaeology).

If you enjoyed this post, then come read again in 2 weeks time for Episode 3. Some of the people dealing with human remains (collections) which I think are worth watching.


Illustration from ‘Tabulae sceleti et musculorum corporis humani’, by Bernhard Siegfried Albinus (1697-1770), via Wiki Commons



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