Human remains as documents: implications for repatriation

Publication Date29 Aug 2019
AuthorJim Berryman
SubjectLibrary & information science,Records management & preservation,Document management,Classification & cataloguing,Information behaviour & retrieval,Collection building & management,Scholarly communications/publishing,Information & knowledge management,Information management & governance,Information management,Information & communications technology,Internet
Human remains as documents:
implications for repatriation
Jim Berryman
University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia
Purpose The purpose of this paper is twofold. First, to investigate the documentality of human remains in
museum and research collections. Second, to provide a rationale for a processual model of documentation,
which can account for their repatriation and eventual burial.
Design/methodology/approach This paper uses a multidisciplinary approach to examine the
repatriation issue. It considers an ethical argument developed to support claims for repatriation: the nominal
identification of a body as a universal criterion for its burial. Based on Igor Kopytoffs processual model of
commoditisation, it looks to cultural anthropology to help explain how objects can move between a document
and non-document state.
Findings Human remains can be understood as examples of information-as-thing. However, while
document theory can readily account for the expanding realm of documentation, it cannot adequately
accommodate instances where documentality is revoked, and when something ceases to be a document. When
a human biological specimen is returned, the process that made it serve as a document is effectively reversed.
When remains are interred, they revert to their primary standing, as people. The process of becoming a
document is therefore not unidirectional, and document status not permanent.
Research limitations/implications The implications of a processual model of documentation are
discussed. Such a model must be able to account for things as they move into and out of the document state,
and where the characteristics of documentality change through time.
Originality/value This paper explores problematic material not usually discussed in relation to document
theory. The repatriation movement poses a challenge to a discourse predicated on documentation as a
progressively expanding field.
Keywords Repatriation, Document theory
Paper type Conceptual paper
In September 2017, The Guardian newspaper ran a story about the skull of an unknown
Australian soldier on display in the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of
Philadelphia (Daley, 2017). The skull, a gruesome and tragic specimen from the First World
War, showed evidence of appalling facial trauma, including a bullet lodged in the right
sinus. Based on records detailing the provenance of the skull, historians were able to
identify the remains. Private Thomas Hurdis, from New South Wales, died of wounds on
3 October 1917, following the Battle of Polygon Wood in Belgium. Private Hurdis was
treated at an American field hospital by W.T. Shoemaker, a surgeon and ophthalmologist
from Philadelphia, before dying of his wounds. Hurdiss skull was severed from his body for
pathological study, to enable physicians to learn from the medical developments and
experiences of World War One(Chester, 2018). After the war, Shoemaker donated the skull
to the Mütter Museum. Following calls for the skulls repatriation, including requests from
the Australian government, the specimen was finally interred in Hurdiss grave in Belgium,
along with his substantive remains.
The case of Private Hurdis is not unusual. When claimants seek the repatriation of
human remains held in museum and research collections, it is usually to bury (or rebury)
these remains. The repatriation of human remains emerged as an issue in museology in the
1970s. It was during this period that some Indigenous groups, particularly in Australia,
North America, and New Zealand, began to ask museums for the return of their ancestral
remains (Fforde, 2013, p. 710). This issue was controversial from the outset, not least
because many of these remains had been collected within a colonial or frontier context, often
Journal of Documentation
Vol. 76 No. 1, 2020
pp. 258-270
© Emerald PublishingLimited
DOI 10.1108/JD-04-2019-0060
Received 6 April 2019
Revised 4 June 2019
Accepted 10 June 2019
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT