After 40 years of being in the spotlight, “Alice” the skeleton and only resident of the Doctor’s House has come off display. Recently, the display of human remains has come under scrutiny in the museum field. No longer are human remains being considered as just another object, but as objects that were once a living people and therefore requiring specialized treatment. “Alice” was once alive. She once presumably had a family and people who cared for her. Because of this, we as a staff have reexamined our thoughts and feelings about keeping “Alice” on display and came to the decision that we are no longer comfortable leaving her up.
“Alice” came to the Dallas Heritage Village in 1977. From what I discovered in the collection files she was disassembled and in boxes when she arrived. It was two years later that she, having been articulated, was installed in the Doctor’s house. She has hung there ever since.
But what of her time before coming to Dallas Heritage Village? When we began to think about the removing her from the exhibit, the first thing I did as curator was to dig into our files to gather every bit of information we have on “Alice.” It wasn’t much. Here is what we know about her: Her skeleton was donated in 1977 and she went on display in 1979. The donor was the widow of a local doctor. It was this doctor who called the skeleton “Alice.” The local doctor purchased the skeleton around 1930 from another doctor. We believe “Alice” lived in Henrietta, Texas, and we think she was in her late teens or early 20’s.
Let us consider provenance. We know little about this other doctor; I’ll call him Dr. X. We know that Dr. X was from Henrietta, Texas. He practiced medicine in Dallas until he lost his license. We don’t know why. Since “Alice” was also from Henrietta it is a reasonable conclusion that Dr. X was the first owner. In that respect the provenance of “Alice” is clear: Dr. X to the donor’s husband to us. We don’t how Dr. X came to be in possession of the skeleton.
What we don’t know about “Alice” is concerning. We don’t know how she died, her real name, or her ethnicity. No one on our staff is a forensic anthropologist, so our investigations of the bones are amateur at best. We believe she was Caucasian and around 18 or 19 when she died. But we don’t have an accurate time period for her life. We can narrow it down to probably the end of the 19th century, but this is merely supposition and not hard fact. We do not know if she gave consent to become a medical specimen. This last bit is crucial. If she never even gave consent for her body to be used as a medical specimen, she’d probably not be okay hanging in a museum exhibit. There is too much we don’t know to for us to feel comfortable with keeping her on display.
For me, it comes down to human dignity. I asked myself: if this was the skeleton of my relative would I be comfortable with her remains displayed like this? No, I would not. Do I think that every museum should take down their displays of human remains? No. Every museum must examine their own collection for information to decide what they are comfortable with. For DHV, human remains are not crucial to our displays and our story. “Alice” can easily be replaced with a model and it won’t take anything away form the exhibit. We actually have more human remains than you’d think; certainly more than I was expecting to find. Along with “Alice” we will be removing a femur from the Doctor’s House and a partial skull from the Dentist’s office.
So what happens now? I’ve created a safe storage space for “Alice” in our warehouse. I’ve lined a box with foam, Tyvek, and archival tissue so that the bones will be supported while she is in storage. From there it gets fuzzier. Ultimately our goal is to de-accession “Alice”. This means to remove her from the collection. However, in order to do this we need to have a respectful way to divest ourselves of the skeleton. There are no clear guidelines to follow. Most remains removed from collections are done so because a family member or an ethnic group to which the remains belong request for the body to be returned. There is no one asking for “Alice” and since we don’t know her real name, we have no family to contact.
Some next steps are: using her remains to research her past, returning her to Henrietta, Texas, and burial. Of course, none of those are mutually exclusive, but not all of them are necessarily practical at the moment because our resources are limited. I’d like to have someone come examine “Alice” to confirm things like ethnicity and age, and to answer questions like cause of death. I feel that those things might help us identify her and personally, I’d just like to know. Whatever the outcome will be, we will do our best to make sure “Alice” gets the respect she deserves.
By Elizabeth Qualia
Curator of Collections and Interpretation
[Note: Through out this post I’ve been putting “Alice” in quotes because we don’t know if that is her original name, but I don’t like calling her “the skeleton” because it dehumanizes her. We need to remember she was once a living person.]