Museum Vrolik and Body Worlds Amsterdam: reflecting on two exhibitions of human remains

In early November, we (Sarah Tarlow and Liv Nilsson Stutz) visited the Netherlands with the objective of viewing two different exhibitions of human remains: Museum Vrolik and Body Worlds, The Happiness Project, Amsterdam. While we realised it would be two distinct experiences, we were not quite prepared for just how radically different these two exhibitions would be, and how entangled the ethics of it all would appear at the end of the day.

The signage to the museum in the hospital foyer underscores the medical context of the collection. Photo by Liv Nilsson Stutz.

The Museum Vrolik is located on the bottom floor of the Amsterdam University Medical Center. As you enter the building you find yourself in a contemporary hospital, but as you turn left and enter the dark space of the museum you take a step into the past. A sign at the entrance cautions you that the exhibition contains human remains and may not be suitable for sensitive visitors. Photography is not allowed. The Museum website states:

“You should compare your position as a visitor to the Museum Vrolik with students of medicine during a practical anatomy session in the dissecting room. They observe and dissect mortal remains, but do so with proper respect and they are not allowed to take photographs of whatever they see in the room”

https://www.museumvrolik.nl/en/about-the-museum/human-remains/

Museum Vrolik has an impressive collection. The remains were collected between 1750 and 1950. It contains 3300 human bones, skulls, and complete skeletons, 840 anatomical preparations with congenital defects, 1230 human anatomy preparations, 7400 glass negatives, 600 preparations related to dentistry, 530 plaster models and casts, 1760 drawers of brain slices, and 410 wax models. In addition the museum also contains animal bones and preparations. Only a small sample of this impressive collection is exhibited.

Cover of the catalogue of the Museum Vrolik “Forces of Form,” for sale in the museum shop. While I do not want to link to any online content of the displays, I show the cover of this book to provide an impression of the kind of specimens exhibited in the museum.

The exhibition consists of one square shaped room with dimmed lights and aesthetically illuminated glass display cases forming four areas in the center of the room displaying anatomical and pathological specimens, and along the perimeter of the room, a series of display cases that chronicles the history of the collection. It is breathtaking.

The collected are categorized as “objects of science” – but the display invites us to see people who once lived with pain, disability and strength to survive many years under difficult circumstances. It is moving and unsettling all at the same time.

In the historic overview the collection is contextualised with a focus on the collectors and their roles in the history of research. The presentation is honest and transparent and mentions collections from cemeteries and medical wards. In contrast to the matter of fact tone in the texts, the actual exhibition in this part of the museum is sometimes very moving – especially the mounted skeletons of physically disabled individuals, one of which is still leaning on their cane. The juxtaposition between the factual narrative on the signs with the emotional displays is interesting. While only the collectors are visible as agents in the narrative, the collected demand our attention in the display. It suddenly dawns on us that there is contextualisation but no problematisation. The collected are categorised as “objects of science” – but the display invites us to see actual people who once lived with pain, disability and the strength and support to survive many years under difficult circumstances. It is moving and unsettling all at the same time.

The main part of the exhibition focuses on anatomy and pathology. Here there is very little contextualisation of the collection beyond that of the human body itself, which presents itself as a timeless medical fact. The preparations of fetuses and new borns, or of more complete body parts, add a dimension of subjectivity to the exhibition, bringing to the fore a shadow of individual lives – viable or not. But in the end, these remains are exhibited as objects of science.

While an explicit reflection on the ethics of collection is absent from the exhibition, the museum webpage includes a statement that recognises that collection practices in the past were very different to contemporary medical practices, and that it is not possible to know if the deceased or their relatives consented to, or were even aware of the fact that the remains were collected. Just like in the exhibition itself, it is in the voids between what is explicitly stated and what is implicitly felt, that the ethical entanglements emerge for us to reflect on. It is interesting and moving.

Entrance to Body Worlds in Amsterdam, advertising the exhibition of “over 200 real human specimens” in the midst of the Amsterdam tourist district. Photo by Liv Nilsson Stutz.

Later the same day we visited Body Worlds, The Happiness Project, Amsterdam, located in the tourist area of the city center, and marketed at the entrance by a man who, like in a manner that reminded us of old time fair ground exhibitions or freakshow, enthusiastically invited us in.

Three separate displays of plastinated human bodies at Body Worlds Amsterdam. Note the sexualised position of the woman (left), the active position of the male (center). To the right an arrangement of sexual intercourse. Photos by Liv Nilsson Stutz.

Body Worlds has become a world wide sensation and a lucrative private enterprise. Günter Hagen who developed the plastination process which makes it possible to display the anatomical structures of the human body like sculptures, has marketed the venture as a mission to educate lay people about anatomy and health. Body Worlds has been criticised for using unethically sourced bodies, but today claims that all bodies on display are of people who have given their informed consent.

The Amsterdam exhibition mixed the exhibition of plastinated bodies staged in evocative poses with the display of individual organs. The whole bodies were positioned in a way that was always gendered and sometimes even sexualised, with female bodies placed lifted, lying down or leaning to the side with their legs apart, and with male bodies jumping a fence, playing a saxophone and steering a ship. One room was devoted to sexual intercourse. The theme chosen to frame the exhibition was happiness, and it was communicated through basic educational texts about health and well being, and through inspirational quotes. Despite the unique selling point of Body Worlds – the display of actual human bodies (in the middle of the tourist district no less) – the experience seemed artificial. It was difficult to connect to the material/humans on display. The commercialisation of the venture added to the confusion. Was the purpose of the exhibition to provide education, and the plastinated bodies were used as a way to lure people to pay over 20 Euros for a mediocre learning experience? Or, was the educational theme just added on as a justification to show dead human bodies? It was impossible to say.

The contrast between the two exhibitions could not be greater. Museum Vrolik showed old and admittedly sometimes problematic collections, but managed to inspire compassion and emotion, while Body Worlds felt like a commercial carnivalesque display trying to pass as education. Even if these bodies were displayed with consent, the ethics seemed more muddled than ever.

The Anatomical Collection at Karolinska. Report from a seminar.

On March 29, 2022, Karolinska institutet organised a seminar on their anatomical collection. The purpose of the seminar was to present the history of the collection, and to discuss possible ways forward as the institution grapples with a problematic history. This work is part of a broader engagement on behalf of Karolinska with regards to its history, and in particular its past connections to research on “race”, and the place the collection of crania had in this history. As a first formal step of this process of reckoning with the past, the institution raised the issue of honorific names on its campus – a topic already discussed in this blog. The second step is now to handle the collection of human remains.

Biomedicum, Karolinska Institutet – location for the seminar. Photo: Liv Nilsson Stutz

The seminar was introduced by the University President Ole Petter Ottersen who welcomed all to the newly inaugurated lecture hall named in honor of Eva and Georg Klein, both Jewish immigrants from Hungary after the Second World War, and viewed as representing the value of civil discourse and academic conversations also about difficult topics. To me, this introduction rightly framed the collection of human remains as such a difficult topic, as one worthy of civil discourse and academic exchange and – perhaps most importantly, as a topic around which we need to start by listening to one another.

The seminar was not uncontroversial and had received criticism even before it started, for example by Amnesty Sápmi. The critique focused on the fact that the speakers were identified as majority population seniors, and as such not able to speak on behalf of the remains themselves, or on behalf of descendants. This is true. But then again, the participants did not claim to do this, but rather participated to explore the topic from historical, anthropological and legal perspectives and expertise.

As the first speaker, Dr Imelda Helena Ek (Karolinska Institutet), presented her report on the history of the collection and placed it within a broader 19th century context in which race biology was an inherent component. The history of the collection is complicated by the fact that it was partially destroyed by a fire in 1892, during which the archives that today would have allowed researchers to retrace a lot of the history of individual remains, were lost. Typically, as the collection became obsolete for medical science and eventually also problematic, it has circulated between different institutions including Stockholm Univerity, Gutavianum and the Medical History Museum. In 2015 the collection returned to Karolinska and once more became its responsibility. Since the remains were returned they are not available for research and are not exhibited. Several international repatriations have been completed following international praxis. A sensitive part of the collection constitutes the remains of 70 individuals, a majority represented only by their cranium, that were taken from graves (both from prehistoric sites and from abandoned historic cemeteries) in Finland, during an expedition in 1883. While these remains were dug up, they were not part of any regular archaeological excavation, but must be viewed as collected for anatomical purposes. The motivation to collect these remains was to obtain specimen of what was considered to be “Finnish types” for the comparative anatomical collection. There is thus a direct line here between both race science and Sweden’s colonial history. It is generally felt that this collection is problematic, but according to KI any repatriation must be negotiated between the Swedish and the Finnish states. All KI can do is to inform about what they have in their care.

Back of bust of Gustaf Retzius. Source: Stockholms Aktionsverk

The second speaker was me (Liv Nilsson Stutz), and I focused on problematising one of the main ideas of the project Ethical Entaglements, i.e. the way in which human remains are situated on a sliding scale between objects of science and lived lives, and how the ways in which we perceive them depend on their state, character and history, and on external factors such as social and cultural awareness. As a suggestion of consideration for the future I also proposed that instead of rushing to clean out the closets, we approach the responsibility from a perspective of ethics of care, and thus move beyond the idea of formulating strategies based on the perceived value of the remains for science. An ethics of care perspective also means that institutions may have to take long term responsibility for remains that will never be claimed for repatriation, and also for its history and heritage – even when dark and uncomfortable.

The final speaker was professor emerita Kirsti Ström Bull who presented her experiences as a legal scholar involved in the legal cases leading up to the repatriation of Sámi remains from institutions in Norway. These cases have had a long term impact on the handling of ethical evaluation of research on human remains in Norway, where currently a national ethcis committee (Skjelettutvalget) reviews all requests for research on human remains. In cases of Sámi remains, the Sámi parliament is always included in the consultation. This kind of mechanism might be very valuable also for Sweden to consider as we build a more solid research ethics on human remains from all contexts – going beyond the immediate considerations of the Karolinska collection. Professor Bull underscored the importance of allowing the process to take time and be an opportunity to build trust and understanding.

“While we’ve had an academic discussion today on complex issues in which different opinions and criticisms have been raised, what we’ve also discussed concerns the concept of the equal value of all humans.”

President of KI, Professor Ole Petter Ottosen

After the presentation the floor (and online chatroom) opened for questions and comments. Natte Hillerberg from the organisation Sträva at Karolinska (an organisation of students and alumni at Karolinska organising for equal care for all) called out the lack of representation on the panel. She drew attention in particular to the human remains collected in Finland. The Q&A with participants in the auditorium and online explored issues relating to what might happen to the collection in the future, what kind of research questions may be explored, possibilities and experiences of repatriation of human remains from the collection, and what KI can learn from good experiences of repatriation from, for example Norway.

President of KI, Professor Ole Petter Ottosen concluded: “While we’ve had an academic discussion today on complex issues in which different opinions and criticisms have been raised, what we’ve also discussed concerns the concept of the equal value of all humans.”

FEATURED IMAGE: ANATOMICAL PLATES 1855. RETZIUS, ANDERS et al. Museum anatomicum Holmiense quod auspiciis augustissimi regis Oscaris primi ediderunt professores Regiae Scholae Medico.Chirurgicae Caroliensis. Sectio Pathologica.