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No Fit Place: On Books Bound in Human Skin

closeup image of leather texture

Many museums around the world hold and display human remains. Be they in the form of the ancient Egyptian mummies housed within the British Museum, the skeleton of the notorious murderer William Burke at Edinburgh’s Anatomical Museum, or the University of Oxford’s Amazonian “shrunken heads,” the relationship between the deceased and museums is intimate. It should surprise no one, then, that museums are the site of significant ethical debate. After all, where we find death, we often find controversy.

For example, and possibly a topic with which many will be familiar, there is considerable debate surrounding how museums obtain their exhibits and whether this has any bearing on how, or even if, they should be displayed. If a body falls into a museum’s stewardship via less than official means – like graverobbing – should this affect whether a museum should exhibit the body? We might think the answer is yes, as such an action would be patiently unethical (and likely illegal). But is this true across the board? Does time play a factor here? After all, many of the bodily remains of ancient peoples were taken from their burial places many decades, even centuries ago. Should this matter when compared to the educational and social value such remains might produce?

My point so far here is not to pick sides in such debates (although I do have a side). Instead, I want to highlight that when it comes to how museums treat remains, there is a long pedigree of philosophical and political debate, as well as legislation. This is not the case, however, when it comes to another form of venue in which the public can engage in academic and educational pursuits – libraries.

Now, this might not strike you as particularly relevant; after all, libraries don’t hold human remains, they hold books. But this is, strictly speaking, not true as some libraries house books bound in human skin.

This practice, called anthropodermic bibliopegy, became fashionable in the 19th century. While it conjures up images of occult rituals and human sacrifice – vis-à-vis the necronomicon – in reality, it has closer ties to far more legitimate professions, such as medicine and criminal punishment.

One of the most famous examples of this comes from Edinburgh in the form of a name already mentioned in this piece – William Burke. Over ten months in 1828, William Burke and his accomplice, William Hare, terrorized the streets of Edinburgh by murdering at least sixteen people. This was not simply mindless violence, however, as Burke and Hare sold their victim’s bodies for dissection in anatomy lectures. The pair were eventually caught, and, while it is unclear what happened to Hare after he turned King’s evidence, Burke was sentenced to death by hanging and, with a sense of poetic justice, his corpse was publicly dissected and his skeleton was placed on display.

What is interesting here, however, is that a section of Burke’s skin was removed and used to cover a small notebook, which is now housed in Edinburgh’s Surgeon’s Hall Museums. In a very macabre tone, on the front of the book, in faded gold text, reads BURKE’S SKIN POCKET BOOK.

This is not the only example of such a morbid tome, however. While rare, there are many more examples of such items at multiple institutes, including Harvard’s Houghton Library, Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum, and Brown University’s John Hay Library, to name a few. And, while the reasons for such unusual bookbinding vary, from punishment to memorialization to collection, it is essential to remember that each book is bound in the remains of a person who, regardless of how they lived their life, was once a living, breathing individual. Thus, how we treat these items matters. These are not just books, nor are they simply bodies; they exist somewhere in between. And while these items are not exclusively found in libraries, given the fact that they are books and that it can be hard to tell what exactly they are made from (differentiating between human and pig skin is difficult without testing), libraries must acknowledge the potentially ethically tricky situation they find themselves in; not just as curators of books, but the potential guardian of human remains.

So, what should a library do in such a scenario? How should they respond if, after testing, an item in their collection is found to have as its binding human skin?

One option is to destroy it as such an item might be deemed too offensive to be allowed to continue existing. This might be because it draws up unpleasant connotations linked to how it came into being or from whom the remains come (the skin is from a murderer or was obtained through bodily desecration). It may also be offensive not because of who it is made from or how it came to be, but simply because of what it is. As such, it might be that the best way forward is to destroy the piece humanely, thus preventing anyone in the future from obtaining it or causing any further offence. Yet, while this may be the simplest option, it is far from uncontroversial. The item holds its own story, and many may learn much from it. Not just in terms of how it was created, but also in what it represents as well as the narrative of how it came to be in the form it is. Thus, to destroy it is to abandon the knowledge and legacy that the item has accrued. The issue could be further complicated if the remains used in the item were offered willingly. Is it acceptable to destroy such an item if this contradicts the wishes of the person from whom the book has been made?

An alternative, then, might be to continue holding onto the book but to keep it away from the public. To house it away in a secure room in the depths of a library and, while not forgetting about it, letting it slip from public and professional consciousness. While potentially avoiding some issues related to the offence it causes, this does little to address one’s responsibilities towards the remains, and may very well compound any such dereliction of duties. After all, if one is aware that an item in their collection contains parts of a human body, keeping it locked away in storage might be seen as ignoring the issue. Few would find this a satisfactory solution if the item in question was a severed human head. Should the fact that the remains no longer resemble a body part and are now part of a book really make this option any more palatable?

So, if destroying the book and hiding it away are not options (or at least problem-free options), then what is left? Well, the final course of action considered here is to openly acknowledge what the items are and how they came to be; make the items available to the public to come and learn about. After all, if museums can use remains for educational purposes, then why can’t libraries? Burke’s remains, for example, were put on display so that future people might reflect on his actions. It’s an easy argument to make that his skin, regardless of whether wrapped around a book or not, should serve the same purpose.

Yet, this contravenes what libraries are typically for. While they are places of learning, and their roles are ever-changing and expanding, asking them to be home to bodily remains and to take on all the additional responsibilities that come with such a role might be asking too much.

Ultimately, then, whether libraries should retain their morbid, part-human, part-bibliographic items is far from a simple question as it draws in concerns about what the library’s role is in society, how we treat the deceased, and whether the form of bodily remains alters our responsibilities to them. And, while this is not a pressing question given how many books exist, we are talking about our duties to the deceased. Thus, both sensitivity and decisiveness are required.

Underwater Heritage? Raising Titanic’s Marconi Telegraph Device

black-and-white photograph of Titanic

In the early morning hours of April 15th, 1912, the RMS Titanic, the “unsinkable” ship hit an iceberg and sunk. 1,500 passengers and crewmembers died. After the accident but before the ship sank, Jack Phillips, the chief telegraphist aboard, sent a series of distress calls on the vessel’s state-of-the art Marconi telegraph device. By these means, the Titanic was able to make contact with the Cunard liner Carpathia. Carpathia was able to save 700 of Titanic’s passengers, bringing them safely to a port in New York four days later. Many of these lives, if not all of them, would have been lost had Titanic not been equipped with the Marconi telegraph device. It has been referred to as the “voice of Titanic” for good reasons.

In 1985, the remains of Titanic were discovered off the coast of Nova Scotia. Sonar from a French research ship indicated the presence of the wreckage, and an unmanned diving sled, the Argo, fitted with cameras, was able to confirm that the vessel was, indeed, Titanic.

The discovery of Titanic ignited debates about who owned what was found there. Titanic was a ship in the fleet of White Star Line, which no longer existed at the time Titanic was found. RMS Titanic Ltd., a company that conducted a series of dives to Titanic to retrieve artifacts, claimed ownership as salvor-in-possession. This means, essentially, that the party or parties that salvaged materials from a site have a right to the materials at that site. A company that insured Titanic fought back against RMS Titanic Ltd., claiming rights in virtue of the fact that it paid out compensation over what was lost. In 2007, RMS Titanic Ltd. was granted ownership. Recently, the company made plans to excavate the Marconi device, the “voice of the Titanic” from the wreckage.

One of the main objections to excavating significant portions of Titanic has to do with respect for the dead, and respect for the families of those that lost their lives when the ship sank. Some survivors of the tragedy have, in years past, made their thoughts about raising the ship well known. Eva Hart was a seven-year-old passenger on Titanic and escaped on a lifeboat to safety. Her father was not so lucky. In a 1985 interview, Eva reflected on the possibility of raising the ship. She said, “…to me, it’s my father’s grave. I don’t ever want to see the Titanic again. I don’t want to see it raised.”

Eva was not alone in expressing these concerns. On the possibility of raising the ship, the Titanic Project Director in 1985, Dr. Robert Ballard, said, “Oh, I think that would be ridiculous. No, absolutely not. In fact, I would like to go and try to ensure that the desecration of this memorial to 1,500 souls is left the way it is.” He continued, “It’s like trying to raise the Arizona at Pearl Harbor. I see absolutely nothing to be gained and I think that a ship like this, being a sailor of many years, you ought to leave it where it is. The souls have now been located and they are fine where they are.”

There have been other expeditions to Titanic during which artifacts have been retrieved. One of the concerns about this particular expedition is that it might dislodge bodies of the deceased from what many view as their graves. In response, RMS Titanic Ltd. has claimed that their surveillance of the area provides them with no reason to believe that there are bodies in that portion of the ship. Indeed, over the course of more than 200 dives, RMS Titanic Ltd. has found no human remains in the ship. In response to this argument, Paul Johnston, maritime history curator with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History said, “Fifteen hundred people died in that wreck. You can’t possibly tell me that some human remains aren’t buried deep somewhere where there aren’t any currents.”

A second objection is that the courts were wrong in the first place to grant ownership of Titanic to anyone. The vessel isn’t a fairy tale chest full of treasure abandoned by a pirate, it’s a cultural heritage site, even if no one ever sees it. Countless books and movies have been made about the Titanic tragedy. It speaks deeply to so many human emotions and human values. Even all these years after the fact, many feel a deep sense of grief when they reflect on the magnitude of the loss. The story of Titanic is a human story, for better or for worse. The building of the ship is a story of human triumph and innovative spirit. Those that boarded it expressed an adventurous outlook and an appreciation for human accomplishment. These are attitudes with which we can all relate. On the other hand, it is also a story of hubris, socio-economic injustice, suffering, fear, grief, and inexpressible loss. It seems callous to even refer to what sits on the bottom of the sea at that site as “wreckage.” It is a memorial both to those that were lost and to all of the human sentiments the event evokes when we reflect upon it so long after the fact. In this sense, Titanic, unmolested, belongs to all of humanity.

In response to these concerns, those that advocate for retrieving the Marconi device argue that it is precisely because Titanic belongs to all of humanity that significant portions of the ship should re-surface. Viewing portions of the ship, getting to know the people on it and the way that things functioned is an important part of educating people about what happened. For example, it is one thing, in the abstract, to understand that people died; people can read about that in history books. It is a different experience entirely to see the personal effects of those that were lost — their hairbrushes, their shoes, their wedding rings, their diaries. These kinds of details make events real for people. In particular, viewing the Marconi device will educate people on one significant element of the story — the critical technology that prevented the disaster from taking even more lives.

Bolstering this argument are considerations about democratizing the ability to view artifacts from Titanic. Currently, it is possible for the very wealthy to take expeditions to the actual Titanic site. If you have an extra $125,000 laying around, you too can engage in a bit of tragedy tourism by taking a state-of-the-art submersible 2.5 miles under the ocean to what remains of the ship. Bringing relics like the Marconi device to the surface makes the ability to view these items of historical significance available to all people.

The present location of the Titanic exhibit cuts against the idea that the goal of putting artifacts on display is to affordably educate the population at large in a way that is respectful of the magnitude of the tragedy. The exhibit isn’t at the Smithsonian or at some other well-respected museum that people can view at the price of a voluntary donation. Instead, the exhibit is currently housed at Luxor Casino in Las Vegas, where spectators, after they’ve hit the buffet and had a few drinks, can view the personal effects of the dead. That is, if they haven’t gambled away their last thirty-two dollars, which is the price of admission.

McDonalds and Cultural Heritage

A new McDonald’s location has opened up at a controversial location in China: inside a former Taiwanese president’s villa. The home belonged to President Chiang Ching-kuo and his family, but they only lived there for about a month before fleeing to Taiwan. They left very few possessions behind and multiple families rented the house later on. Although the house was declared a cultural heritage site in 2003, part of the home was already converted into a Starbucks a few weeks ago.

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Colonialism and the Western Museum

Inseparable from the modern museum is an examination of how the forces of globalization affect it. As audiences of these museums seek increasingly globalized experiences, so too have the collections of museums diversified with collections from around the world. Impressive as they may be, though, such collections bring with them a number of ethical issues. And in the time of ISIS and antiquity black markets, foremost among them is just how such antiquities arrived in the museum’s hallowed halls in the first place.

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