Images of Human remains on Wikipedia

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Policy is straight forward. Wikipedia is not censored:

“Wikipedia may contain content that some readers consider objectionable or offensive‍—‌even exceedingly so. Attempting to ensure that articles and images will be acceptable to all readers, or will adhere to general social or religious norms, is incompatible with the purposes of an encyclopedia.”

If we can get our hands on relevant freely licensed images of human remains, then there is a fair chance they will be used in articles.

While various groups might find this objectionable, censorship in this area would be the kind of thin end of the wedge that Wikipedians really, really don’t want to deal with.

That was simple, lets move on.

What do non-Wikipedians think? Well, a search of Google Scholar throws up nothing directly. Some have rough analogues, though.

In war photography, there is the standard argument of balancing respecting the dead with not sanitising war. Ken Jarecke famously went with: “If I don’t photograph this, people like my mom will think war is what they see on TV”. Personally, I tend to agree.

That said, most of Wikipedia’s war photos are old and black and white which provides a certain veil over events. We do have colour stuff from the current Russian invasion of Ukraine (along with prisoner of war photos but those are a separate issue). Bucha massacre is probably the most high profile example. Its also ethically probably one of the more straightforward. The images are all sourced for Ukraine. These are their dead and they have largely avoided showing faces.

Human remains in museums are an ongoing debate. Both in terms of repatriation and reburial of human remains and how to handle the stuff you are not going to rebury. Museums being museums, they have set up entire exhibitions about the subject.

Broadly, museums have been getting more restrictive about human remains in the UK. This is governed by the Human Tissue Act 2004, which has resulted in a lot of museums at least thinking about what they are doing. In this area, “Wikipedia is not censored” is probably going to be the last word. If someone is on display in a museum, Wikipedia is probably always going to be okay with a photo of them. Even if it is alarmingly racist. Certainly Wikipedia has photos of human remains in museums that are at the centre of controversy. The now removed Pitt Rivers Museum Shrunken heads and the skeleton of Charles Byrne both have photos on Wikipedia.

Museum photography has the secondary matter of getting people to take the photos in the first place (war photographs mostly come from third parties that have released them under a free license). Wikipedia may not be censored but the people taking and uploading photos can make their own decisions. While we do encourage Wikipedians to be emotionless robots, we are not entirely successful. My personal standard appears to be that I’m not ok with taking photos of non-wrapped mummies unless they are British. If you want a pic of Nesyamun you are going to have to get your own. Ditto poor Ta-Kush down in Maidstone. Lindow Man though I’m apparently fine with since he is from the British isles. Shep-en-hor I’m apparently fine with since she (or whoever is in that mummy case) is wrapped. Concerns about her presence in the museum have been raised mind.

Ultimately “Wikipedia not censored” is probably the only viable option. Options in this area vary too widely and tie into broader censorship (PETA would probably be concerned about our stuffed animal pics and we have various photos of things that religions and governments would prefer we not have photos of). The principle of least astonishment may have some relevance (It was perhaps somewhat concerning that the only image in the Whitby Museum article was a human hand) but for the most part people don’t think there are many articles out there overly gratuitous images of human remains. Readers may be shocked by some of the images in our articles on wars and massacres, but I’d argue that is more of a result of wider popular media attempts to sanitise both rather than any issue with Wikipedia’s choices.

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This is an interesting issue and one, and one which museums and archaeologists have been addressing for decades. I do not agree with the post’s framing that this is an issue of censorship as it removes nuance from the issue. Writing with sensitivity is nothing new to Wikipedia, as can be seen in English Wikipedia’s biographies of living people policy which encourages editors to handle information with “a high degree of sensitivity”. While this is a different situation, accomodating ethical concerns is entirely consistent with editorial good practice.