Paris is a hotbed of culture and tourism no doubt. It has more museums, historical sites, gardens and tourist attractions, such as the Eiffel Tower, than one can hope to visit in a lifetime, even if one lives full time in that city.
During the annual meetings of the International Council of Museums, I decided to pay a visit to the Musée de l'Homme (Museum of Man), which had been closed for a number of years for renovation and was reopened to the public in 2015.
This is a notorious museum even for an anthropologist and quite infamous for its collections of human remains. It is in this museum that the remains of an African woman who had the most “generous” behind (steatopygia) ever seen by Europeans, and was therefore an “exhibition” item in Europe, were on display for decades.
Certain Kenyan socialites need to be aware that, that which they crave and go to great lengths to acquire was once the source of distress and in some instances became the source of misery and untimely deaths for African girls to whom it was naturally endowed.
THE SARAH BAARTMAN CASE
The extremely sensitive issue of human remains is one of the prime sources of antagonism towards museums of anthropology for obvious reasons: The why and how they were obtained. There is no doubt that human remains further scientific knowledge and make great contributions to both history and cultural studies. But most human remains seem to have been collected unethically. In spite of great advances in the museum profession, the complexity of human remains has remained in the area of difficult heritage, and policy guidelines on their continued use and ownership remain elusive.
One of the most infamous cases of use of human remains is that of a girl from the cattle-keeping Gonaquashab group of the Khoikhoi in South Africa. She was captured as a slave in the early 1800s by the Dutch, who had invaded South Africa. She worked as a domestic servant for a Dutch family in Cape Town. At some point, the family took her to Britain as an exhibit and Europeans, shame on them, paid to “view” her for entertainment purposes in London.
When it became untenable to keep the lady in England due the increased public consciousness about slavery and the calls for its abolition, the family sold her to a French man, who exhibited her alongside baby rhinos. A French naturalist, George Curvier, “acquired” her from the “gamekeeper” and used her as a specimen for zoological, anatomical and physiological purposes. The French man was notorious for his large animal and human collection.
The unfortunate girl is recorded to have died at the age of 26. Her body was dissected and stored for display in the Museum of Man. Until as recently as 1974, visitors to this museum could view her brain, skeleton and genitalia. The girl was known as Sarah Baartman, an indication that her tormentors took away everything, starting with her Khoikhoi name. Names are supposed to be one of the rather obvious forms of identity.
WHAT TO DO WITH HUMAN REMAINS?
In a gross abuse of the female body, she was used to perpetuate racism and the myth that the square European was the essence of “normal” and beauty for women. The dismantling of this myth has thankfully been consolidated, hopefully for eternity by American movies stars and socialites such as Jennifer Lopez and the Kardashians. Younger generations of African girls now view their behinds as part of their natural heritage where it does occur naturally.
Linguistically, “bootylicious” now refers to a sexually attractive woman, especially one with a big behind. It is hard to imagine that at the turn of the century this would have earned a woman a place in a box of curiosities and may have cost her life.
The government of South Africa under Nelson Mandela requested the return of the Khoikhoi girl’s body from the French government. She was finally laid to rest in her native South Africa in 2002.
The issue of human remains is one that will blow a storm in the heritage world sooner than later, as communities become more determined to get back the remains of their ancestors. Museums will also have to create modalities for returning such remains and the even more difficult issue of what to do with them, if they cannot continue to be displayed and or used for research for obvious ethical issues.
The world is less impressed with morbid fascination as many nations do their best to operate on a platform of democracy and respect for not only human rights, but the human condition as well.
I guess next time I will get round to saying what the Museum of Man is famous for!