The Nightmare Before Christmas

In 1993, Jack Skellington, the King of Halloween Town discovered Christmas Town but didn’t quite ‘get’ the concept. Nearly 20 years later and skeletons and Christmas are thrown together again…

It was the night before the night before the night before Christmas when news broke that that chiefs at The Hunterian Museum have rejected a suggestion that the bones of their ‘Irish Giant’ be removed from display and buried as per the Giant’s wishes when he was alive.

Usually I’m not in favour of Museums dismantling their collections piece by piece according to modern sensibilities. I firmly believe that you can’t judge the actions of yesterday, be they the actions of archaeologists, adventurers or other, by today’s standards.

However, I do have one exception to this rule: when it comes to human remains.

In life, the ‘Irish Giant’ was a Charles Byrne from County Londonderry. Towering above the general populace at a lofty 7ft 7 inches, Byrne made his living exhibiting himself as a curiosity or freak in 1780s London.  In death, he is still being exhibited, despite Byrne expressing a wish to be buried at sea.

Dr Sam Alberti, director of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, said:

“The Royal College of Surgeons believes that the value of Charles Byrne’s remains, to living and future communities, currently outweighs the benefits of carrying out Byrne’s apparent request to dispose of his remains at sea.

At the present time, the museum’s Trustees consider that the educational and research benefits merit retaining the remains.”

There is the argument that his DNA is needed for research purposes; Byrne’s remains played an important part in linking the condition acromegaly, where excess growth hormone is produced, with the pituitary gland, which has enabled the diagnosis and early treatment of people who have it.

Furthermore at the beginning of this year, further important research used the DNA from two of Byrne’s molars to establish a genetic link between Byrne and several people from a particular area of Northern Ireland. However, you don’t need the whole skeleton for DNA samples.

To me, this argument misses the point: this man is not a specimen; he did not leave his body to science – it was ‘acquired’ by Hunter (founder of the museum) after he had died. Byrne should not be treated as a pile of bones.  There is no reason why a cast of his remains can’t be made for display purposes and the body be put to rest.

Oh, and for the record I think the mummies should go back to Egypt. They’re PEOPLE, not OBJECTS.

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3 responses to “The Nightmare Before Christmas

  1. A thought provoking post at this time of feasting and festivities Jack. I heard this argument on Radio 4’s Today programme. It’s a thorny issue for museums, whether or not they display human remains. At The Egypt Centre our Curator does not believe they should be displayed so the only mummies we have are 3 animals. We do have a 3000 year old coffin. The lady was cremated about 40 years ago before we acquired the coffin. Even in Egypt though they display their ancestors in the Cairo Museum so if the mummies were sent back they’d just be put on show there. I think you are right about Byrne though. He never agreed to have his remains used by medical science, he should be allowed to RIP. Happy Christmas!

  2. A thorny issue that is tied up with repatriation of artefacts also. I wrote an essay about it for me MA and it is something I feel strongly about. I think the Parthenon marbles should be returned to Greece but the BM disagrees. There are several arguments for and against repatriation in general and they would make an interesting debate 🙂 I do think that every situation needs to be dealt with individually and a blanket decision can’t be made.

    • Exactly, each situation is unique and in each case there are loads of different issues to be considered. I think in this specific case, the guy clearly didn’t want to be on display when he died so it’s wrong that he’s still there.

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