Now we’ve come to it: Part 1 was about the situation in general, Part 2 covered authenticity and the hard truths of preservation, and now…
What about those human remains, though?
The Slate article ends on a bit of a cliffhanger that I was interested in exploring more
“Besides, for Stringer Clary, there’s another, potentially thornier element of the story that’s going under-discussed: ‘I saw that they [Ripley’s] gave Kim a lock of Marilyn Monroe’s hair,’ said the professor, who also researches museums and human remains, which happens to be an extremely knotty area of museum policy: ‘I wondered where they got it, first of all.’”
I’ve researched and written about human remains in museums for several years, and I am currently co-editing a book for Routledge Published titled, Museums, Death, and Human Remains, for publication next year. Human remains are a huge topic in museums worldwide, and there are stories of improper use of remains, decolonization, repatriation, and reinterpretation almost weekly, it seems. Human remains can be vastly defined as any part of a human body; this could be a complete Egyptian mummy, a medical specimen skeleton, cremated remains, or even human hair.
According to Ripley’s Instagram account, “During @KimKardashian’s Met Gala dress fitting at Ripley’s Believe It or Not! HQ, our team surprised her with a silver box that contained an actual lock of Marilyn’s iconic platinum hair.” Apparently, locks of Marilyn Monroe’s hair are somewhat common items, able to be purchased by anyone at auction.
When Kim received the unprovenanced lock of hair from Ripley’s staff, she said in the posted video, “Oh my God, I’m literally going to do some crazy voodoo s—… This is so special to me. Thank you so much. This is so cool. This is so cool. Wow.”
In a real museum, deaccessioning an item is a long, legal process. Museum staff don’t generally give away or sell items, except in rare, regulated situations, if they are following the ethical guidelines of museum governing bodies. There are ethical guidelines for museums, but not legal guidelines.
However, the only law in the United States that applies to human remains that potentially impacts private entities is the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990), which states that any human remains or grave goods that are uncovered or held by anyone who receives federal funding are subject to the law. This means those with federal funding have to consult with federally recognized tribal representatives to repatriate remains or grave goods, or other items of cultural patrimony. If federal funds are not involved, then there are not really rules in the United States for remains that would apply to a private entity. There are state laws that can restrict the desecration of a body, but that would not apply to human hair, especially if it was taken while the individual was living.
This appears, again, to be a case of a private entity purchasing and item and using it for their own purposes.
c’est la vie, c’est la mort