I came across this interesting article chronicling an emerging controversy in Los Angeles. I never knew that human remains had been found in the La Brea tar pits, but a partial skeleton of a young female had been on display until recently in the George C. Page Museum there. At some point, a museum volunteer made forensic-style reconstructive drawings of this young woman. Now the museum is trying to prevent their publication, a move which some claim is designed to help prevent their repatriation.
Are illustrations of human remains tantamount to display of the human remains themselves? Is the display of a cast any different? The forensic reconstructionist apparently used the cast, not the actual skull. But consider the process of making a cast: is not that a greater insult to the dead than merely handling their bones would be? In any case, these forensic reconstructions contain a little too much interpretive latitude: consider the Kennewick man reconstruction whose resemblance to Patrick Stewart has done nothing to quell the notion Kennewick man was ‘Caucasian’. Further, the forensic reconstructions include disturbing “cutaways” revealing the reconstructive process and producing an otherworldly, inhuman appearance (see below).
So, is the La Brea story really about this:
The Page Museum doesn’t hide the fact that La Brea Woman resides in its storage facilities. But officials said that they believe it isn’t appropriate to display something purporting to be La Brea Woman when it is only conjecture or speculation.
Is the controversy designed to guard interpretative privilege of these remains? Until recently these were apparently on display with a holographic effect projecting a naked body over the top:
La Brea Woman is on display in the Page Museum in a light-box display that might frighten young children. A hologram technique shows La Brea Woman’s upright skeleton and then, with the special-effects lighting, artificial muscles, skin and hair appear on her bones to show you what she might have looked like in life – an interesting, but unsettling look back in time.
I suspect the museum is aiming less to avoid repatriation of these remains which might be unavoidable anyway (surely they are a NAGPRA-bound institution if they accept any federal subsidies or money), and is more interested in guarding their monopoly on the display and interpretation. Every diorama and reconstruction in that museum is also “only conjecture or speculation” after all, so they hardly can play the “just the facts” card.
I don’t believe the Museum’s motives so I am linking to the images here – if this makes it more likely that repatriation happens, so much the better. I mean, this is the same museum with this tasteful diorama!