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A Conflict of Interest? Negotiating Agendas, Ethics, and Consequences Regarding the Heritage Value of Human Remains

Since the mid-twentieth century growing public fascination with a heritage of violence has spurred an increase in sites of conscience and dark tourism. While scholars have demonstrated how this heritage can draw attention to events that may have been marginalized or ignored, little attention has been paid to complex ethical dilemmas involved in the commodification of violence through tourism. Even less attention has been paid to ethical treatment of the remains of victims whose suffering is central to dark tourism. This dissertation demonstrates how heritage policies and codes of ethics can be strengthened to promote ethical treatment of the dead in heritage contexts, a critical need since the dead can no longer speak for themselves. The central case study involves heritage development on St. Helena island after archaeologists excavated the unmarked graves of individuals who died due to the traumatic conditions of the transatlantic slave trade. This ethnographic case study, set during a period of intense economic and tourism development in St. Helena, illustrates how community members and others decide the fate of the excavated remains and what meaning or value this history has in the present. Using content analysis of codes of ethics and heritage policies, this dissertation analyzes the efficacy of these resources in addressing on-the-ground issues related to ethical treatment of human remains in heritage contexts. These resources, while providing valuable guidance and insight, reflect problematic power dynamics or cultural assumptions, including privileging Western perspectives. Furthermore, they often fail to consider heritage as a dynamic, fluid, global process. The anthropological perspective presented here offers new thinking on the impacts of present needs and demands on heritage development, drawing out what had previously been relatively invisible forces of power and capital. I call on stakeholders to interrogate their own efforts in the heritage development process: Who is invited into decision-making processes, who is excluded, and why? In addition, decision-makers may need to look past their own cultural contexts to consider what constitutes ethical treatment of human remains; their knowledge, beliefs, and opinions should not be unquestioned substitutes for the once-living individuals who are the object of heritage projects.
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