The Body in the Archive: Embodiment, Storytelling & Human Remains
(University of Oxford)
Paper short abstract:
Historical museum collections of human remains present a unique challenge for historians and anthropologists alike. More than simple 'objects', these artefacts retain a loquacious 'subjectness', whose complex entanglements with living bodies continually reshapes their afterlives in the archive.
Paper long abstract:
During the 19th-century, collecting and the assemblage of archives went hand-in-hand with the emergence of modern disciplines. In the case of anthropology, forensic science, and medical collections, the human body itself was collected alongside other material artefacts. This paper presents a case study of interdisciplinary archival work carried out on a unique collection of human remains: 300 European dry-preserved tattooed human skins held in storage at the Science Museum, London. Originally acquired by the Wellcome Collection from a Parisian physician in 1929, these artefacts blur the boundaries between subject and object, and present a particularly rich resource for the study of European tattoo iconography, the material culture of medicine, the history of criminal anthropology, and museum ethnography. Lying at the interstices of four disciplines - anthropology, art history, medicine and forensic science - the tattoos are encountered today through the embodied day-to-day practices of curators, conservationists and researchers. In the absence of related archival documentation, this paper explores what can be learned of their biographies, purposes, and shifting meanings, through primarily ethnographic, sensory and material methodologies. As both fragmentary remains and fragmented collection, the role of imaginative storytelling is foregrounded in the process of excavating their histories in the present-day archive. These stories trace both their enmeshment in contemporary political and ethical debates surrounding human remains in the museum, and demonstrate their multiple and fluid character over time, creating in the process a new instance of their afterlife.
Bodies of Archives/Archival Bodies