Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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A Pound of Flesh: Human Remains, Ethics and Museums in Tertiary Education

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Version 2 2023-09-26, 23:57
Version 1 2021-11-23, 10:51
posted on 2023-09-26, 23:57 authored by Milnes, Paulette

The collection and display of human remains has long been accepted within many cultures and religions. However, in contemporary Western society the practice has become contentious, and acquisition by museums has all but ceased. Among academic and museum communities, debate and discussion on the problem have been centred almost entirely on indigenous repatriation claims and Body Worlds exhibitions, to the exclusion of other aspects of what is in fact a much broader issue. The purpose of this thesis is to examine the question of whether human remains can ever justifiably be collected and held by museums. The focus of the study is the situation of health science disciplinary museums within tertiary education, with specific and detailed reference to the W.D. Trotter Anatomy Museum and the Drennan Pathology Museum at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand.  Three interconnected aspects of the topic are considered in order to answer the primary question. The first is an examination of the codes of ethics and professional practice that govern the treatment of human remains; the second reviews the justifications commonly given for the use of human remains; and the third aspect considers the role museums play in tertiary education. Documentary sources, exhibitions and interviews were analysed to address these issues and corroborate evidence. Examined together, these three areas of investigation bring a fresh focus on whether the acquisition and retention of human remains can be justified, at least within certain parameters.  This study concludes that in the particular educational context of the health science teaching museum there is a strong justification for continued acquisition and display, albeit in a highly regulated and clearly defined ethical environment, of human remains. A key outcome of the research is that the most important consideration across all three areas of investigation, and for all groups working with human remains, was the concept of respect. Definitions and expressions of respect differed depending on context and professional boundaries, but within specific ethical parameters it is possible to determine that the collection and retention of human remains can be justified.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License


Degree Discipline

Museum and Heritage Studies

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Arts

Victoria University of Wellington Unit

Museum and Heritage Studies

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code


Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Art History, Classics and Religious Studies


McCarthy, Conal; Jones, Gareth