Displaying Replica Bones and Skeletons

Displaying replica bones and skeletons

Sarah Levitt

Head of Arts and Museums Leicester City Council

March 2016

People have displayed the bones and skeletons of other people across the world for hundreds of years. Over the last two centuries, museums and other kinds of visitor attractions have continued this practice. In today’s world museums are major international tourist attractions, and over half of the UK’s residents are regular visitors. Exhibitions are becoming ever more sophisticated. Museums have a better understanding of the ethical concerns and values of the many different communities they serve, and seek to reflect them in their displays.

While displays of human bones and skeletons in museums are popular, this practice is controversial for many. Most people agree, however, that human skeletons and bones should be displayed with respect.  Honouring the Ancient Dead (HAD) believes that display of human ancestors should be avoided wherever possible (HAD Display Policy), and recommends that museums and visitor attractions planning new exhibitions consider display techniques which do not require real human bones and skeletons.

The following case studies show how this can be done, and suggest that, for most purposes, use of appropriate, good quality replicas potentially either makes no difference to visitors or enhances their experience. However, we need to understand more about how visitors engage with both human skeletons and replicas in displays before drawing any final conclusions.

Case study: King Richard III Visitor Centre, Leicester.

This visitor centre, which opened in 2014, was created by Leicester City Council, and I was part of the team which developed the displays. These feature a 3D print-out of  King Richard’s remains, which show that spectacular results can be achieved using this technology.

The exact location of the king’s burial site had been lost for centuries until a group of people with a deep interest in him decided that his remains should be found and re-buried in a more appropriate way.  Philippa Langley, one of the group, then approached Leicester City Council and University of Leicester Archaeology Service to ask for their help. After his death in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth, King Richard was known to have been buried by the Grey Friars in their church in Leicester. So, in 2012, an excavation of part of the original Grey Friars site was undertaken, in a car park used by council staff. The rediscovery of his near-complete skeleton just hours after excavation began attracted world wide interest, as did his reinterment in March 2015.

The skeleton now lies in a tomb in Leicester Cathedral. Since this was always the intention, we knew from the outset that the visitor centre would not include it, but we needed to convey the “specialness” of this skeleton, the drama of its discovery and of its subsequent analysis.

Research on the skeleton prior to reinterment included a CT scan carried out at Leicester Royal Infirmary. The digital data produced was then used by a team at Loughborough University to create a detailed 3D computer model of the skeleton which was then 3D printed (using a technique called laser sintering) to create an exact and very detailed physical model. This process uses a laser to fuse together tiny particles of material, in this case a plastic, to generate the desired shape*.

The 3D-printed skeleton could have been coloured to resemble the skeleton as it was excavated, or as it was in life, or another colour could have been chosen.  The decision to have a brilliant white skeleton was driven by the need to make it clear this was not the actual skeleton of the king.  The stylised white colour was also a much better fit with the “laboratory like” design scheme of this display area which focuses on the science behind the discovery and features bold primary colours.

Whilst in this case it was never the intention to show the real skeleton, having a 3D print-out rather than the real one also gave much more scope for imaginative interpretation. In this case the skeleton is used as part of a display recreating the CT scanner, with a bright blue under-lit base and a hologram type presentation in the “scanner ring” explaining the wounds that were discovered, which proved how the king was killed. This presentation is an integral part of the bright, “laboratory like” design.

The 3D print-out also demonstrates the way technology is now integrally combined with archaeology.  The 3D print-out is fascinating in its own right, and data from the CT scan was also used to produced  a reconstruction of the king’s head. This is also on show together with an animated “fly-through” of Grey Friars church before it was abandoned in the reformation, plus film, photography and immersive audio-visual effects.

Another advantage of this process is that more people can see the replica skeleton than a real one, since further identical copies were made in this way. One remains with Loughborough University, one is displayed at the King Richard III Visitor Centre, and one is kept by the University of Leicester Archaeological Service for future study. Two 3D prints of just the spine were also made, one for the visitor centre, and one to illustrate a scholarly article. These demonstrate the effect of the king’s scoliosis. In 2015 the University of Leicester’s copy was on show for some months at the Science Museum in London, and it has been displayed elsewhere since then.

Data from the CT scan could potentially be used to create an infinite number of replicas, and the data can be transmitted easily across the world. However it was decided at an early stage to limit the number of copies produced to three, plus two further copies of King Richard III’s spine. This was because the electronic data and 3D print-out made from it are intellectual property, even though human remains cannot legally be owned.  It was also felt it would be inappropriate for King Richard III’s skeleton to be widely  copied.

The scan and 3D print were undertaken as part of a larger research project, which covered some of the costs, but the production of a replica skeleton in this way from scratch could cost c. £20,000. While that may sound a large amount, the budget for many exhibitions can come to over £1 million. Even this price therefore represents a relatively small proportion of many budgets and good value for money, especially where the skeleton has a significant, unique interest. It would of course cost less if only a skull or partial skeleton were to be copied.

Case study: Human Evolution Galleries at the Natural History Museum, London.

The Natural History Museum in London includes Human Evolution, an exhibition exploring the development of homo sapiens, and other hominins which are now extinct.  It does this through actual skeletons plus different types of replica, including 3D prints. Unlike King Richard III’s replica skeleton, some of the data used to create the 3D prints is available to copy.

This beautifully presented exhibition shows further possibilities for displaying replicas and shows how their use makes imaginative types of display possible that could not be achieved using human or hominin skeletons and bones alone.

The exhibition does include some hominin skeletons and bones, which are clearly identified. However the majority of exhibits are marked as reconstructions, replicas, models or casts. These include some 3D print-outs, but also models made in traditional techniques.

Overall, it is hard for general visitors to distinguish without reading the labels which skulls and skeletons are real and which are replicas. The impact of the displays is enhanced by the use of replicas, since they can be used in ways which would be impossible with real material; for example, many of the replica skulls are on open display, while hominin remains are in cases.

The use of casts and models by museums mounting exhibitions about early humans who lived up to two million years ago has always been customary, simply since the few fragile examples of each type in existence are held in museums and research centres across the world. Without replicas, exhibitions drawing together comparative examples like this would not be possible.

However, this example shows that traditional model-making techniques could be used to make replicas of particularly significant skeletons for display purposes. The Human Evolution exhibition does include important and well-known skeletons, such as the 10,000 year-old Cheddar Man, as well as a modern-era skeleton, but watching the reaction of the many enthusiastic visitors to this exhibition, I think it did not matter to them whether the displays were of real hominins or not.

Many people believe the display of human skeletons is to be regretted, and this well-designed and informative exhibition suggests there is little or no need to include them in exhibitions.

* The 3D print in the King Richard III Visitor Centre was created by Russell Harris, David Thompson, and Darren Watts of the Additive Manufacturing Research Group, Wolfson School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, Loughborough  University. Dr Jo Appleby of the University of Leicester was responsible for the CT scan.