With the announcement on Monday that Richard III had been dug up from the spot where he was buried in 1485, his bones gave up many of their secrets to the world. DNA from his marrow and teeth confirmed his identity; his twisted spine proved that his hunchbacked stance was no myth; a ragged hole in his skull jibed with recorded accounts of of the king’s death. Photographs of the bones were released to the media, including a close-up of the skull, and reporters were allowed to see them but not to shoot photos of their own. The New York Times explained the rules: “No cameras were permitted, in accordance with an agreement reached with Britain’s Justice Ministry when it issued a permit for the skeleton’s exhumation, and, university officials said, with the dignity due to a king.” A Roman Catholic priest sat with Richard’s remains as the reporters filed past.
That sense — of “dignity,” and perhaps squeamishness — is peculiar. We know that it’s acceptable to exhibit a corpse, royal or otherwise, if it’s ancient: Pay your admission to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and you can see dozens of Egypt’s pharaohs. Same for the Silkeborg Museum, in Denmark, which exhibits Iron Age people who were buried in peat bogs and were thus uncannily preserved, down to the fingerprints. (You have to wonder how much business the museum’s snack bar does.) We also know that it’s not okay to exhibit a recent royal figure: Nobody thinks it would be acceptable to dig up the Queen Mum or Princess Diana and send out pictures of her. Somewhere in between those extremes, a mysterious ethical switcheroo takes place.
It turns out that archaeologists and museum directors have thought about this quite a bit, especially in Great Britain. The British Museum has its own eight-page set of guidelines, in which it sets forth a few standing principles. Human remains more than a thousand years old are okay to show. So are those that have been modified and thus provide archaeological information about cultural practices — say, a mummy that shows us particular ways in which the ancients prepared their dead. So are those that provide information about evolution or ancient medicine or epidemiology. (The guidelines also note that sometimes the museum is bound by some prior agreement: a donor’s stipulation, for example, signed generations ago, before anyone thought about any of this.) And the museum has agreed that certain objections deserve a hearing. If the exhibitee died less than 100 years ago, his or her relatives can object. For older bodies, “a community which has cultural continuity with the remains in question” can offer an opinion. That one is aimed at indigenous people who may justifiably feel as though a powerful Eurocentric institution is treating their grandpa like a stuffed auk. To that end, the Manchester Museum, also in the U.K., has begun repatriating Maori human remains to their cultural homeland, whereas the onetime circus freak Charles Byrne, the “Irish Giant,” is still on view at London’s Hunterian Museum despite his stated wish (disputed by the museum) to be buried at sea to avoid just this kind of display.
Here in New York, the various bits and pieces of humanity at the American Museum of Natural History are almost all hidden away in the research collections. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the stuff on view is too ancient for anyone to argue about. “Bodies,” the exhibit that’s been on view forever at the South Street Seaport, caught some flak after reports that its corpses were Chinese prisoners, some of whom may have been treated horribly while alive. A similar show that toured the world, called “Bodyworlds,” inspired hand-wringing in Britain and Canada, though its corpses were all expressly donated and documented.
The decision seems to come down to four factors: Does the body on view tell us something valuable about the past? Are the people showing it treating another culture’s dead as respectfully as they would their own? Is the body old enough to be disassociated from the, y’know, ickiness of it all? And does the person’s fame or significance add or detract from the instinct toward display? That last one gets tricky, because celebrity both piques our interest and at the same time implies certain discretion. A scientist might, for example, disinter 100 nineteenth-century bodies to conduct a study on their height and nutrition. One of those 100 people would probably not be Queen Victoria or Abraham Lincoln, no matter how interesting a peek at either one might be. Lincoln, in fact, has been out and about a couple of times since his death. In 1901, after 36 years and several foiled grave-robbing attempts, his tomb was rebuilt and his coffin buried within several feet of poured concrete, sealing him in there for good. On that day, the crew took one last look at him, ostensibly to I.D. the president but, you have to assume, largely out of curiosity. Incredibly, the embalming process had left him completely recognizable as the man on the $5 bill. The Soviets, of course, went one better on this. The Russian government continues to show off the preserved corpse of Lenin, and for a few years Stalin lay nearby, though he’s no longer on view. Chairman Mao is also a tourist attraction; so are Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. (You have to wonder what Cuba has in mind for Fidel Castro.)
The deciding factor may be the nature of the display: Once a leader has been interred as intended, you’re not supposed to pull him out and show him off, at least for a few hundred years. (It helps if he’s lost in the interim.) If you plan on exhibiting him from the start, then go for it. So should King Richard be on exhibit? By the standards above — and by those of the museum establishment that are laid out above — it’s perfectly justifiable. The wounds tell us significant things about the historical record, just as the blunt instrument that killed Richard would have (and you wouldn’t argue against showing us the weapon, would you?). The only things that ought to give exhibitors pause is whether he is, as an artifact, interesting enough, and whether the Plantagenet royal heirs have a claim of privacy. The latter point is essentially moot: As the Times story revealed, there are only two left, each the last of his or her line. And on the former point, well, “interesting” is in the eye of the beholder, of course. But among the many, many things in British museums — from academically interesting potsherds to dopey fake dinosaurs — I’d say that an actual, honest-to-God king who is also the subject of a Shakespeare play qualifies.
My kingdom for an ogle!