Curating Respect: Exhibition Review

Entering ‘Bodies of Evidence’ exhibition. Photograph copyright and courtesy Durham University.

At a time when museums are considering the return of human remains and adhering to the wishes of the deceased, a new exhibition respectfully explores the identity and reason for the presence of bodily remains in Durham. Before seeing Bodies of Evidence: How science unearthed Durham’s dark secret, an exhibition about the imprisoned Scottish soldiers who died in the 1650s, I hadn’t expected to experience the level of care and respect that I did.

At the entrance to the display space, I was greeted by interpretation panels that introduced the archaeological discovery that is central to this exhibition. During the building of a café at Palace Green Library, a pit of skeletons was discovered. Bodies of Evidence not only provides the story of the find, but also builds a picture as visitors are given clues and hints to the identity of the individuals. The selection of what is displayed and – most importantly – what is not displayed, the treatment of objects and means of providing knowledge to the visitor all demonstrated great levels of care and respect. I will talk a little bit about each, but if the reader can visit Palace Green Library before 7 October 2018, you should visit and experience it first-hand!

First, some background information on the exhibition. Human remains were found in 2013 during building works on the Palace Green Library grounds, beside Durham Cathedral. Through two years of scientific investigation, the bodies were identified to be from the time when the Civil War resulted in Cromwell becoming Head of State of England, Scotland and Ireland. When the Scottish side lost the 1650 Battle of Dunbar, English troops marched the captured soldiers to Durham and imprisoned them in Durham Cathedral. The Cathedral was closed for worship under the Cromwellian government. The prisoners of war were sent to carry out different labour across England or were even transported to America. However, many died on site. It is estimated that 1,700 of these captured soldiers died in Durham.

The exhibition does not sensationalise the remains but takes the visitor on a journey of discovery – from finding the bones to discovering full-bodied identities for these men. I think it is a mark of respect to give back someone nameless their identity. Their treatment of mass burial without clothes was not dignified, however their treatment since discovery is. There are clear notifications – online and in the exhibition – that no soldiers’ remains are on display. One of the first panels states ‘only what needed to be exhumed was removed’ in accordance with national guidelines. This ethical thread runs throughout the exhibition.

In an effort to share the cutting edge science of bio-archaeology, a 3D print of one set of skeletal remains is on display. Even though these are not actual human remains, it is a form of replica and is displayed partially obscured. Therefore, the visitor makes the choice of whether to view the model and is ultimately given the decision of whether to interact with this aspect of the exhibition. Again, respect is evident in the awareness of the visitors’ own diverse ethical perspectives. Respect for these soldiers is not only isolated to exhibition dynamics, as the bodies that were exhumed were reburied and the process behind that decision was shared.

3D replica reconstructed skeleton. Photograph copyright and courtesy Department of Archaeology, Durham University.

The exhibition is transparent in the decision-making processes surrounding the exhumation and reburial of the bodies and explains why the remains were not returned to Scotland. A petition with 1,100 signatures requested the bodies be returned home to Scotland. However, home may not have been Scotland. The origin of many of the soldiers is not known: some may have been hired soldiers, and scientific research indicates not all the bodies were from the UK. Also, as the bodies were thrown into a pit, the skeletons were disorganised and partial bodies were recovered. Therefore, if the material that was exhumed were to be sent somewhere else, it would separate the remains of these men.

The exhibition respects how we discover and share knowledge. There was an elegant combination of scientific discoveries with historical documentation. These provided indicators of what the soldiers would have eaten, the conditions they grew up in, how they fought in battle, their capture, the long walk from the battlefield to Durham, and their final destinations. For example, the date of the burial pit was calculated by a combination of scientific research and historical research. There was evidence of pipe-use on the teeth of the bodies, and part of the burial pit was cut through by the bishop’s stables. Thus, the age of the grave originates from a combination of scientific evidence – tobacco was used only after 1612 (when it was introduced from overseas) – as well as historical research – the bishop’s stables are on a map from 1754. Therefore, the pit was created between 1612 and 1754. Many questions can be answered by scientific and historical investigation, but some cannot. I admired how the exhibition text did not shy away from the fragmented picture that is currently known about the fates of the soldiers. It demonstrates a confidence in the visitor that they do not require a neat narrative, but are aware and understanding of the gaps in historical records, especially for people that were not dignitaries or high-ranking officers. 

Another aspect of knowledge is the recognition that not all is known about the past. What we glean is from written records or scientific investigation. A highly visual example of this is the Chapter Minute Book that details the occurrences of the Cathedral. There is a gap from 1643-1660 when ecclesiastical activity ceased. It was as if the Church vanished, the building was still present, but that one record ceased in its use until it was picked up again after the Restoration of 1660. The interpretive text explains the seven-year gap. However, it is also a reminder that not everything is written down. This aspect is evident in the subsequent exhibition section where the fate of each soldier is unknown.

I particularly appreciated how material was used to convey the zeitgeist of England in the Civil War. Rather than telling the visitor of attitudes, outcomes of these attitudes are shown which the visitor can then comprehend on their own terms, as well as make the connection autonomously without didactic text. For example, the Protestation Returns listed all adult men that swore they were Protestant, a means of identifying Catholics and Catholic sympathisers. It was a tool of control, but also a form of a census. I was interested to see the handwriting of locals that may have been witnesses to the hundreds of soldiers marched into Durham from Dunbar. The interpretation explained what the list was and why it was created; it let the reader engage with the material as a pointer toward some of the context of that time.

Making such an effort to bring to light the reason for their presence in the ground honours the remains. Respect is also shown for what happened to the soldiers who did not die in Durham. There is a section of the exhibition that speaks of all the different locations under English control where the captive men were sent to work. It was touching to see video footage and photographs of the descendants and wonder if their ancestors had stood in the same spot as me. For some, this location was the last place they took their breath, but for others it was a springboard to new towns and countries.

3D facial reconstruction. Photograph copyright and courtesy Face Lab, Liverpool John Moores University.

At the end of the exhibition is the 3D facial reconstruction of one of the skulls found during excavation. A digital image of this face is on posters outside the exhibition and other marketing material, but when I got to see the face, after finding out so much about these men, I felt like I was meeting an old friend. If only he could talk and answer some of the unknowns that remain as yet unanswered!

There are many conversations around museums repatriating bodies taken by colonising countries and the display of bodies, often without their permission. The day I visited, I had just read about the Hunterian Museum in London considering adhering to the wishes of Charles Byrne, whose skeleton they have displayed for about two hundred years. Byrne was known as the Irish Giant and implored his friends to bury him at sea in a leaded coffin so his remains would be left in peace and not treated as a medical curiosity. His wishes were not adhered to, and he was purchased by the founder of the Hunterian Museum. While wishes of the soldiers captured in Dunbar were not known, their dignity was respected and they were treated ethically. Also, the week before I visited, I saw an article about Real Bodies: The Exhibition in Australia. Medical professionals had accused the New South Wales Department of Health, which allowed the display of plasticised bodies of people from China, of not adhering to their own protocols as no donor consent forms were publicly displayed. The exhibition organisers argue the bodies are educational. However, I believe I learned much about the Scottish solders through the description of the scientific investigation and the 3D replica body. That is why Bodies of Evidence is so successful: information was shared and visitors were educated, all while the bodies were respected. Museum practitioners could take a page out of the Palace Green Library book.

Also, for any School of Museum Studies interested in Palace Green Library, they regularly host Masters Student placements! It seems like a great place to gain experience in exhibition development and museum research.

This entry was written by Oonagh Quigley. She is passionate about connecting people to the past and worked in the museum sector for ten years in Australia. She moved to University of Leicester to do her PhD, exploring museum visitor engagement with a phenomenological approach. Her research interests are social history and how museum visitors encounter objects. Twitter: @OonaghQuigley


Popular Posts