Would you like your skull in Paper or Plastic?

As Election Day in the United States approaches, out newsfeeds, emails, and TV’s are full of messages telling us who and what to vote for. I am not here to tell you who or what to vote for, I just found this worth mentioning as it seems to be a prevailing state of mind for many, myself included. Where are we going, what are we doing, and what is the future going to be like for myself and my family?

plastic bag litter.jpg

Here in California, amidst the other propositions about porn and recreational drugs, Prop 67 banning the use of single use plastic shopping bags was a popular measure on the ballot. I had many impassioned environmentally friendly people on Facebook pushing this measure and sharing it constantly. I get it- they are bad for a variety of reasons. I personally use reusable grocery bags because it is something small I do, and I also find their durability to be more practical. It makes sense that we should be making small changes like this to better our future, and let’s face it, is a plastic bag really going to make or break our day? All exceptions aside, this issue is cut and dry to most people. We know right from wrong. We know what is good.

Extrapolating this concept, why are people still buying and selling human bones? We take pride in saying we are progressive, writing complex measures on plastic bags, but we chose to ignore the fact that we do not have strong enough laws that protect our own body parts after we die? This all seems a bit backwards to me. Here I thought I was doing a good thing by taking my reusable bags to the store, and voting in favor of environmentally friendly policies. In some ways this seems to petty compared to other societal issues that are running in the background around us every day.

This popped into my head when I read a National Geographic article Human Skulls Are Being Sold Online, but is It Legal?’  last weekend about the topic, which I urge you to check out if you have not already. The first paragraph recounting a story of a British Archaeologist selling a skull online, was just oh so disturbing for myself- shame on them.

Here is a statistic for you- “Between 2012 and 2013, scientists found more that 450 human
skulls listed on eBay. The team categorized these skulls as teaching specimens or forensic/archaeological items.”
The article explains that many skulls or bones are from old teaching or medical collections that are no longer used, from forensic crime scenes, or pillaged from archaeological excavations. The article talks about the pros and cons, and the demographics of those who buy and sell these human remains. I understand the need for authentic remains for the training of cadaver dogs, and scientific studies, but there are official and regulated ways to go about acquiring what is needed without resorting to unsavory methods. But let’s sit for a minute with the idea that people just think it would be ‘cool’ to own a skull, and that they can buy one without having to leave their couch- paper or plastic?

I remember sitting in an archaeology class my third year of my undergrad, and a professor asked the class if we would mind if someone dug up our bones and put them in a museum in 100 years. Out of 30 people, only myself and one other said they felt uncomfortable with that. Think about it- would you want your body on display?

These prevailing attitudes of bones meaning nothing because the person is dead, this lack of respect is why museums and archaeologists have found themselves in difficult predicaments- why indigenous communities still struggle to trust us. Have we really come that far from the body snatching days that inspired the Anatomy Act of 1832 in the UK? Even after the act, tens of thousands of bodies were used for dissection without consent until the 1930s (Hubert and Fforde, 2005: 109).

I agree with Hubert and Fforde when they write that it is not only indigenous people who wish for the return of their dead. People all over the world are concerned about the fate of the bodies of their kin (2005: 107). This issue should be important to us. Others may not agree with me, but I believe that we should find the idea of selling body parts online disturbing. It sets a disturbing precedent for the future, and leaves vulnerable peoples open to having their families remains stolen from them. It encourages people to steal, and devalue history.

Museums have gently slid themselves into the deep waters of repatriation over the past few years, mostly because of the demand that human remains be taken off of some displays and returned to their communities. Creating and implementing this kind of ‘social inclusion’ is not easy, as it is asking museums to redefine their rolls in society and demonstrate a new kind of social purpose (Sandell, 2012: 562). How do museums fit into this new world? Museums need to set an example, and discourage this kind of activity amongst academics and researchers- if academics are actively selling from their own stores, how can we expect others to have morality when we ourselves are bankrupt? Having lived in a world without social media and without widely available internet, I can agree that society has changed with its invention, and that in many ways these issues are black holes. We simply need more regulation that is inclusive of online activity, and eliminates these loop holes where people are able to commit acts that are wrong.


So yes, plastic bags are an important issue to our future. Our past is also important, and what kind of future will we have if we cannot value that which came before us? Let’s try to be more aware of other basic issues- like the rights to respect as humans that are still being violated, weather we chose to pay attention or not.  Getting caught up in all of the drama and theatrics behind election distracts us and takes time away from what we really need to be talking, and thinking about. Thanks for reading, and as much as I have knocked voting a bit here, get out and vote at least for your local and state measures next week!

Peace and long life.


**********If you are interested in some good anthologies of Museum related essays, check out these two awesome books I referenced in my blog above. They are ride or die for myself! I have included their Amazon US links.**********

Hubert, J. and Fforde, C. (2005) ‘The reburial issue in the twenty-first century’, in Corsane, G. (ed.) Heritage, Museums, and GalleriesAbingdon: Routledge.

Sandell, R. (2012) ‘Museums as Agents of Social Inclusion’, in Carbonell, B. (ed.) Museum Studies: An Anthology of Contexts, 2nd edition, West Sussex: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.


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