Thanks to time, legislation, and some much-needed introspection, museums and the people who work in them have come to think of these practices as the disrespectful, unprofessional, and generally awful things that they are. However, while we've tried hard to put the kibosh on collecting anyone else's grandparents, a good majority of the remains dug up from around the world in the past are still being held in collections. In the United States, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, known to us as NAGPRA, has set some standards for how Native American remains and sacred objects should be handled. At my anthropology museum, all NAGPRA-covered human remains (anything that wasn't "freely given or naturally shed," like hair, fingernails, or umbilical cords) are kept in a special section of one of the collections rooms and are not allowed to be used under any circumstances. Those umbilical cords, though, all bets are off. They make festive Christmas decorations!
Much Of What You See In A Museum Is Fake
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Reproductions can be very valuable to a museum, usually in teaching or hands-on collections, where nobody cares if your bratty kid throws it against the wall or uses it to pick his nose. With that in mind, it's difficult to say how many objects specifically are "fakes," because A) museums won't always admit to it, and B) they don't always know. For instance, we once got a large donation from the will of a very rich woman who had spent a lot of her life collecting "ethnic art." One item was a large terracotta sculpture from Central Africa. For a long time, the museum was concerned that it may be a fake, since these particular styles of statues are very widely forged. The only way we could figure out for sure if it was authentic was to cart this large, heavy, delicate statue to a local hospital and put it through a CAT scanner to see if it was made of only a few distinct pieces (as the real ones are), or cobbled together from a bunch of different pieces of broken sculptures (as the "fakes" are). It was authentic after all, but a whole bunch of other objects from the same collection weren't.
If the fakes are good enough to fool Sotheby's, they're probably going
to slip past your average rich old lady.
Sometimes we even have to gussy up the real things. The fossil of Sue the dinosaur in the main hall of the Field Museum in Chicago, for instance, has a false skull on it, because the real thing was too heavy to stay mounted on the rest of the skeleton. The actual skull is in its own case on the balcony above. The museum at University College London displays the mummified body of statesman and philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who died in 1832. His head, however, is in collections storage in its own box. It was on his body for a while, but it started to fall off, so it was removed and replaced with a wax replica. Decide for yourself which scenario is more unsettling.
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