Monday, August 8, 2011

Sensitive treatment for human remains

Travelling in Mexico in July, I visited every museum and historic site I could manage. Given the Mexican cult of death in history and today, I came across a lot of human remains.

I was particularly impressed by a very sensitive display of a carved skull from pre-Aztec culture in the Oaxaca region. At Monte Alban, a hilltop city dating 500BC-750AD, I explored the ruins and looked through the small but exquisite site museum.

This is what I saw through a doorway opening off the main gallery – a large panel that screened a small display space.

Screen across gallery doorway
 My Spanish isn't good enough to know that 'Un Craneo y un Caracol' means 'A Skull and a Shell', though I could work it out afterwards. So I entered the room with no idea what it contained.

Passing by the screen, I saw that the room had only two objects in it, along with information panels on the walls. This intriguing object caught my eye.

Human skull carved

Walking around it, visitors can see the intricate carvings from all angles.

Human skull carved

The other object in the room was this large shell carved in a similar manner.

Carved shell
I already knew enough about prehispanic religion to know that water was venerated as life-giving and that sea motifs, like this shell, were associated with this religious practice.

I knew, too, that death featured strongly in religious life, and that human sacrifice through suffering and death were ritual practices. So it seemed fitting that these objects relating to life and death were displayed here together.

I thought that the sensitivity shown in protecting the skull from accidental viewing was very much in line with contemporary museum practice.

Of course, we saw very different norms in current religious practice. Many Catholic churches display and venerate human remains.  In the Cathedral in Mexico City, one of the side chapels is a reliquary and features this prominent display of San Vital, an early Christian martyr.  Apparently the bones were exhumed from a Roman catacomb in 1819.

San Vital Martir

It is fascinating to see that museums and other cultural organisations reflect living cultural practices, each in their own way.

Posted by Gillian

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