Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

Displaying the Dead: Assessing Agency Through Museum Linguistic Practices

Displaying the Dead: Assessing Agency Through Museum Linguistic Practices

Kelsey Jorgensen

The implied authority of public exhibitions in museums to educate is especially nuanced when considering the language categorization of human remains as sensitive objects or ‘once living persons.’ Assignment of agency through language was born from Bourdieu’s argument that words are never neutral, and connotations of language and power are co-constructed by members of a culture. This research analyzes agency through the objectification or personalization of human remains from the descriptive language museums choose to utilize in their public displays. Results from 27 museums across the United States and the United Kingdom were gathered from email surveys, telephone interviews, and online collections databases. While federal policies and contextual origins of the human remains were occasionally cited as influences, decisions deciding linguistic terminology ultimately rested with designated museum personnel. Less than half of the museums possessed written policies concerning the treatment of human remains, and only one museum had guidelines on selecting language. It is therefore unsurprising that many terms such as ‘specimen,’ ‘body,’ ‘corpse,’ ‘cadaver,’ ‘it’ and even modern nicknames held conflicting acceptability amongst museums. No significant differences occurred between US versus UK museum practices, or between comparisons of remains’ original geographical contexts. Human remains that could still have living kin were given discernible agency through possessive pronouns, while non-contemporaneous remains had no such obvious temporally linguistic divide. Objectifying language such as ‘specimen’ or ‘the bones’ was instead highly correlated to the incompleteness of the human remains. This analysis of linguistic terminology used in labeling human remains on public display can aid in understanding shifting individual, museum, and wider cultural attitudes regarding agency of the dead.

April 6, 2017 - Posted by | abstract


  1. Finding a way to address sensitive topics, is crucial to understanding a cultural attitude, as well as the teaching of these topics to our future generations. This project is a step in the right direction, I myself am unsure of the appropriate language to use in these given situations. I am curious to see the data on the geographic variation, although you mention that there is not significant differences, I would like to know which museums do not have policies and which that do. Could you suggest that the lack of an strong anthropological community correlation with the lack of standardized guidelines for language choice? I wonder if accredited museums would be interested in a creating an approach that could be followed by all institutions.

    Comment by Katie Gerstner | April 7, 2017 | Reply

  2. This sounds amazingly interesting. The objectifying language that correlates with the incompleteness of human remains, does that seem to occur in all situations or when a main identifying portion is missing such as the crania?

    Comment by Terri Renaud | April 10, 2017 | Reply

  3. I love this paper’s focus on data collection- what an interesting topic for a practice that carries a significant impact on how bodies and humans are framed and conceived for the public. For future study, I would be curious if there is a difference in public perceptions of various words used (perhaps comparing novice vs expert perceptions).

    Comment by Elizabeth Riedman | April 15, 2017 | Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: