The purpose of this paper is twofold. First, to investigate the documentality of human remains in museum and research collections. Second, to provide a rationale for a processual model of documentation, which can account for their repatriation and eventual burial.
This paper uses a multidisciplinary approach to examine the repatriation issue. It considers an ethical argument developed to support claims for repatriation: the nominal identification of a body as a universal criterion for its burial. Based on Igor Kopytoff’s processual model of commoditisation, it looks to cultural anthropology to help explain how objects can move between a document and non-document state.
Human remains can be understood as examples of information-as-thing. However, while document theory can readily account for the expanding realm of documentation, it cannot adequately accommodate instances where documentality is revoked, and when something ceases to be a document. When a human biological specimen is returned, the process that made it serve as a document is effectively reversed. When remains are interred, they revert to their primary standing, as people. The process of becoming a document is therefore not unidirectional, and document status not permanent.
The implications of a processual model of documentation are discussed. Such a model must be able to account for things as they move into and out of the document state, and where the characteristics of documentality change through time.
This paper explores problematic material not usually discussed in relation to document theory. The repatriation movement poses a challenge to a discourse predicated on documentation as a progressively expanding field.
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