Body trafficking at the Museum

By: Duncan Loxton, Category: Museullaneous, Date: 26 May 2014

Where did some of the Museum’s human skeletons come from?

Registering human remains

 © Australian Museum

Not long ago, a woman offered her skeleton to the Australian Museum on the event of her death. She explained that since she'd so delighted in the skeleton gallery as a child she’d like to be a part of it. The Museum politely turned her down. It doesn’t accept bequests of this kind. Not anymore.

One hundred and fifty years ago, the Museum was less particular about the human skeletons it acquired. At least one was sourced from an infirmary – as the 1874 interrogation of the Museum’s Curator Gerard Krefft by the Select Committee of the Legislative Assembly of NSW [1] attests:

106. You prepare and set up skeletons sometimes in the Museum? Yes.
107. I believe a body was sent to you once from the Infirmary [2] – the body of an Islander? Yes.
108. What did you do with it? We made a skeleton of it. It was sent by Dr. Cox; he said he would send a man as soon as he could get one from the Infirmary. I prepared it myself as far as the boiling down [3] was concerned, and then handed it over to the men to set up.
109. How long did it take to prepare it? It did not take long – I boiled it down in about three hours.
110. When the Skeleton was set up what became of it? Dr. Cox said he would like to have it, and he would give me another man for it.
111. Was it taken away? Yes.
112. Who took it away? I believe it was taken to Dr. Cox’s place.
113. Is it in the Museum now? No, at Dr. Cox’s. He gave me another man for it – another skeleton for it.
114. Another skeleton or another dead body? Another dead body – a skeleton with the rough flesh still on the bones – not articulated.
115. Where did he send it from? I believe from the Infirmary also.
116. Do I understand you to say that he sent a skeleton or dead body in exchange for the skeleton that was set up in the Museum? A dead body, but not with the flesh upon it.
117. Mr. Macleay.] He sent you the bones not perfectly clean? Yes, just so.
118. Captain Onslow.] Probably it had been anatomized? I suppose so.
119. Chairman.] Was the first skeleton a good one? Yes a splendid specimen.
120. Was the second a good one also? No, it had syphilis and was rotten.

Dr. James Charles Cox was an honourary consulting physician at the Sydney Infirmary, an assiduous conchologist and a trustee of the Australian Museum. Cox’s supply of corpses to the Museum wasn’t an unusual practice - a South Australian coroner was sending skeletons to British museums and boasting about their quality [4]. Cox wasn’t shy about it either; proud enough to reflect on it later as one of his major accomplishments: ‘the Museum at that early age was my delight, and I had a share in preparing the skeleton of the first great whale set up by Wall, and prepared the first perfect skeleton of a South Sea Islander ever made, in conjunction with Dr. Lynch, I articulated and set up for the Museum’ [5].

We don’t know what happened to the skeletons Krefft and Cox are talking about. But we do know that skeletons and human remains continued to be acquired by the Museum [6]. The first of our collection registers, dated from 1877, is dotted with references to bodies and body parts. In the first image under Related Images on this page, "Registering human remains", you can see several examples nestled amongst references to echidna, platypus and mammalian skeletons [7].

If you look closely, you’ll also see that the Museum sent some human skulls to a museum in France. This kind of contribution, along with Cox’s, is a grim relic of a dubious preoccupation with race in the late nineteenth-century. Back then, people collected skulls and skeletons in an effort to classify peoples by their physical features. Today, the practice of studying humans has changed radically – but, perhaps unsurprisingly, some of us still associate anthropologists with bones.

These days, the Australian Museum has an active program repatriating human ancestral remains to their kin and cultural descendants.


[1] AMS028/2 - NSW Legislative Assembly - Report from the Select Committee on the Sydney Museum together with the Proceedings of the Committee, Minutes of Evidence and Appendix., 1974
[2] The Sydney Infirmary and Dispensary
[3] This process of cleaning and whitening likely used a solution of water and Potassium carbonate. (Brown, Thomas, The Taxidermist's Manual: Or, The Art of Collecting, Preparing, and Preserving Objects of Natural History ..., A. Fullarton & Company, 1856, p.95)
[4] MacDonald, Helen. 2009. ‘The anatomy inspector and the government corpse’. History Australia 6 (2): pp. 40.1 to 40.17. DOI: 10.2104/ha090040.
[5] Richardson, Jay E. 1971. ‘Dr. James Charles Cox – Conchologist (1834-1912)’. Australian Zoologist 16 (2): pp. 71 to 83.
[6] For a vivid discussion of the Australian Museum’s role in the traffic of Aboriginal Australian remains, see Turnbull, Paul, 1991, Ramsay's Regime: The Australian museum and the procurement of Aboriginal bodies, c. 1874-1900, Aboriginal History, vol. 15(2).
[7] AMS569/128 - Old collections X register.