Reading Alexandra Ion: on ruins, nostalgia, and lonely specimens

Last week the project invited Alexandra Ion, formerly at the Institut de Antropologie Francisc I. Rainer, Academia Romana in Bucharest, to discuss her article “Anatomy Collections as “modern ruins”: The nostalgia of lonely specimens, published in 2021 in Science in Context.

This beautifully written paper explores a range of entangled issues relating to the collection and scientific handling of human remains. The piece departs from the discovery of a strange specimen – a preserved human face in a wooden crate – in the attic of the Francisc I. Rainer Institute of Anthropology in Bucharest in 2010. The face, extracted from a human cadaver at the turn of the last century, showcased a unique method to preserve human tissue developed by anthropologist and pathologist Francisc I. Rainer, a technology that very soon after its conception fell into oblivion, and with it, the scientific relevance of the face itself.

The face in anterior and posterior view.
Original published in Ion 2021. Intentionally blurred for this blog. Published with permission from Alexandra Ion.

The article explores the history of the specimen and contextualises it within the anatomy practice of the time. We can follow a sort of chaîne opératoire of the making of anatomical objects from human bodies, and how the process unfolds in space, in different parts of the building – from the intake on the ground floor, through different rooms of preparation and display. At some point in time as it becomes obsolete and forgotten, it moves out of the public eye into a closed crate in the attic, tucked away with other items from the past, including papers and photographs. An object among objects. Form here it then emerges at the time of its discovery in 2010. But it is changed. No longer a valuable piece to demonstrate technological skill and methodological progress, it has become an uncomfortable artifact of a problematic past. Like many liminal phenomena, by definition situated between categories, it causes discomfort. Ion describes how she moves it through the building to find a place for it that seems appropriate…the office, the lab….it no longer fits anywhere.

The attic of the Francisc I. Rainer Institute of Anthropology. Published in Ion 2021.
Photo by Alexandra Ion. Published with permission from Alexandra Ion.

In many ways the journey described by Ion for this specimen, is typical for many anatomical collections today. They have become matter out of place (sensu Mary Douglas). No longer useful in the way they were once perceived and even made, they have transformed into something strange, historical, and perhaps, to some, upsetting. The transfer of many anatomical collections from medical spaces to history museums is a tangible expression on a larger scale of this redefinition.

The recurring question then becomes: What to do with them? This is a central question also for the Ethical Entanglements project. Ion offers an interesting approach when suggesting that we can view them, not only as archives (which they are), but also as ruins. Drawing inspiration from Thora Petursdottir’s and Bjornar Olsen’s writings on modern ruins, she views them as “caught between the past and present, between fascination and strangeness.” This opens up a venue to explore our own encounter with them as meaningful and important in new ways, drawing on scientific curiosity, but also emotion and nostalgia.

How do ethics relate to this? The paper centres on the multiple ethics entangled in the engagement with human remains – something that our discussion about the paper came to focus on:

“Alexandra’s inspiring approach to anatomy collections as “modern ruins” made me reflect about our responsibility towards human remains collections. As archaeologists, we work on the principle of preservation through documentation, and it would not occur to us to bury an archaeological site before investigation and documentation. Likewise, I believe it is our duty to engage with these legacies, however uneasy they may be.”

Rita Peyroteo Stjerna

“Alexandra’s paper was intelligent, thought-provoking and sophisticated. I was delighted that she was able to talk with us about it. In a wide-ranging discussion, we talked about how we can extend debates beyond the post-colonial critique, about multiple ethics and how we manage the tension between object and person that human remains present, among other things. We talked about circumstances in which displaying human remains might be a more appropriate solution than concealing them. We went on talking well past our scheduled hour of discussion, which is testament to how rich and engaging Alexandra’s work is. I hope that we will find ways to include her in some future discussions.”

Sarah Tarlow

I too congratulate Ion on this important and beautiful paper. The metaphor of the ruin is interesting and captures an important dimension in the engagement with human remains of the past, emphasising the emotional and affective in this encounter, adding an important dimension to the scientific and historical values often mentioned in the debate. But it also has limitations.

“…to me, as ruins these human remains from the past remain inhabited, if not necessarily haunted”

Liv Nilsson Stutz

To me it remains a metaphor that captures an encounter between a subject in the presence of an object from the past. But human remains are not neutral objects, something Ion also discusses. I want to embrace the liminality of the category fully, and recognise, as a point of departure, that human remains from the past always retain a certain level of their subjectivity, also in the present. To build on the metaphor: to me, as ruins these human remains from the past remain inhabited, if not necessarily haunted.