S01E02: Human Remains

We talk about human remains: how we might approach them as conservators, philosophical topics like consent and time, and examples from all over the world. Listen to an interview with conservator Barbara Wills sharing her experiences. We even review a topical book!

00:25 News in brief
01:35 Our experiences of working with the dead
03:18 Radio Newcastle snippet interviewing conservators Christina and Diana about mummies
05:00 Reactions to different types of human remains from the public – and from us!
08:10 Storage examples, the story of Bob, and Jeremy Bentham
12:12 Recent vs. ancient human remains
15:15 Consent, ethics, and privacy
21:58 Should we conserve human bodies?
24:20 Interview: Barbara Wills chats about her experiences with mummies
35:40 Contemplations, anxieties, and coping strategies as conservators
41:04 What really counts as human remains?
45:25 Context is everything: what about how they died and how long ago?
49:20 Licensing
53:00 Funerary objects
55:20 Review: The Conservation of Hair (book)

Show Notes:

– Heritage Science Group Photo Competition: http://icon.org.uk/news/icon-heritage-science-group-photo-competition-launched
– National Army Museum: “Watch the conservation of Major ‘Bronco’ Lane’s frostbitten toes” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ntBE9gAhDD0
– Jeremy Bentham: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeremy_Bentham
– Preservation of Lenin: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lenin’s_Mausoleum
– ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ Rosalia Lombardo: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosalia_Lombardo
– Body Worlds by Gunther von Hagens: http://www.bodyworlds.com/en.html
– Ötzi the Iceman: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%96tzi
– Further reading for people interested in Barbara’s work: http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/publications/research_publications_series/2015/regarding_the_dead.aspx
– Human Remains in Museums (Museums Association): https://www.museumsassociation.org/campaigns/8125
– Human Tissue Authority: https://www.hta.gov.uk/
– The Conservation of Hair: https://www.archetype.co.uk/publication-details.php?id=227

Hosted by Jenny Mathiasson, Kloe Rumsey, and Christina Rozeik

Intro and outro music by DDmyzik used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

Made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license.

A Wooden Dice production, 2017.


  1. Great to listen to your podcast. Some guidance on working with human remains advise against giving names to remains. Yet it seems that we all want to do just that as a coping strategy. did you ever consider it potentially disrespectful to give HR a ‘false ‘ name?

  2. Jenny

    Hi Jane! Absolutely, and it does carry some problems with it: I am not using their proper name and that’s the unfortunate truth. At the same time curatorial neglect and looting are sometimes the reasons we don’t know their original names and there is no way around that. Namelessness is clinical but it’s a natural human way of actually conveying respect to give something a name — even if it is just a nickname. I’d encourage people to use kind and thoughtful names (which Bob may not be!) if no name is known, but only if this is helpful as a way of connecting with the dead person to them personally. Respect is not a set concept and is always fluid and personal: do what is right for you and what you think is right for them. That’s all anyone can do.

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