Skeletons : London’s Buried Bones


Thom van Dooren

Publication Date:

Thursday, September 18, 2008


Museums and Display


Wellcome Collection
183 Euston Road London NW1 2BE

23 July – 28 September 2008

This exhibition draws on the Museum of London’s collection of approximately 17,000 skeletons, in an attempt to capture something of the diversity of life and death in London over the past 16 centuries.

It presents 26 skeletons from ten sites around Greater London – which were once cemeteries, hospitals, priories, etc – in which large quantities of human remains have been found. Skeletons included adults of various ages and several children.

The exhibition is laid out in a single large room. Each skeleton is presented in a glass case with bones laid out in human form on a black background. The room is dimly lit, with direct lighting over the top of each case. In addition to a brief introduction and map of the locations in which the bodies were found, the only information provided in the exhibition lists features like age, sex, stature and health/disease conditions of the deceased individuals.

Around the walls are photos illustrating the way in which the places in which the bodies were found now look – a Pizza Hut, a church, a tube sign. These signs are clearly intended to capture both the changing and dynamic nature of London, and to convey the fact that these bodies were found in ‘everyday’ locations. The contrast between skeletons and Pizza Hut signs works to remind the visitor that, as the introductory material to the exhibition states, “in London the dead are all around us.”

As the bodies are laid out in geographical order – based on the sites in which they were found – the exhibition had a strange, slightly disorienting, feeling. In places, skeletons from the 17th century lay alongside those from the 2nd or 3rd centuries, perhaps representative of the jumble of bones that lays just under our feet in London.

Only three of the bodies displayed were from the an historical period that might be identified as ‘pre-Christian’ (two from sites that have been dated from the 1st to the 5th centuries CE, and one from a site dated between 250 and 400CE). One skeleton, dated from 1700 – 1850 and belonging to a female between 18 and 25 years old, had been laid out to include the tiny bones of the 22 week old foetus that she had been carrying at the time of her death.

While the display of human remains in museums in the UK is not at all unusual, the thing that most disturbed me about this exhibition was the complete absence of human stories. Skeletons were treated as nothing more than specimens from which to obtain data about population changes and health. The only real information that was provided to visitors was of a medical nature. While this emphasis is perhaps to be expected from an organisation like the Wellcome Trust – that is concerned primarily with health and medical issues – this reductionist approach to human bodies, which presents them as nothing more than objects from which to obtain useful data, struck me as being particularly disrespectful.

While at least some museums around the UK are taking steps towards a more respectful treatment of human remains – that often focuses on providing a great deal of context about the dead and ensuring that they are presented as ancestors, or at least as people – this exhibition, from a supposedly progressive organisation, instead takes a step backwards towards a very antiquated museum culture.