Anatomical Identity: Levels of Identity Attached to Preserved Human Remains
When a human body part is removed and preserved after death, what kinds of identity remain attached to it? There are the extremes of complete anonymity and the named remains of a famous or infamous person, but there are many shades of gray in between. Is the specimen that of a known individual or recognizable only as a race and gender? What reason would someone have to designate the preservation of his remains and ensure that the narrative of his life stays permanently attached? Does a very personal part, like face or skin, commemorate the life of that particular body or can it still be used to represent universal human anatomy? The answers are in part determined by whether the donor wanted his or her identity associated with the specimen. I examine the gradations of identity as represented by three museum objects in three different time periods. The first is the autobiography of a nineteenth-century criminal bound at his request in his skin (at the Boston Athenaeum). The second is the facial portion of a sectioned head from the early twentieth century (at the Mütter Museum). And the third is a late twentieth-century plastinated body shown holding his own skin (currently touring in the BodyWorlds 3 exhibition). I compare these three examples to understand what defines the gradations between identity and anonymity, and to explore the notion of individuality as it relates to the deliberate preservation of human remains. This includes analysis of the identity as offered by the donor, as presented by the exhibitor, and as understood by the viewer. I assess each of the objects in terms of the criteria I have established: nominal identity, visual identity, individuality, intention, physical immortality, symbolic immortality, and cultural identity. A literature review draws out relevant themes within the theory and history of human anatomy. I describe each specimen in a case study, then interpret and analyse them individually. In the conclusion, I make comparisons between them to evaluate the gradations of identity that reside in anatomical specimens that survive an individual after death.
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