Sunday, 24 August 2014

Human Remains at Spanish National Anthropology Museum

Studying the Open University course A151 "Making Sense of Things: An Introduction to Material Culture has made me aware of the issues surrounding the objects in museums and other places that were once living people. We've also studied the origin and evolution of museums, from the Rensaissance cabinets of curiosities up to contemporary museums and shrines.

Remembering from a previous visit to the Spanish National Anthropology Museum (Museo Nacional de Antropología) that there was a skeleton there, I decided to investigate in more detail in the light of my newly-acquired knowledge.

The museum is located on a corner just across from the Atocha railway station and next to the Ministry of Agriculture and the botanic gardens, just down the street from the Prado Museum. Being the holiday season, I was one of very few visitors. I suspect that it comes well downpeople's list of priorities when they're visiting Madrid.
The main façade of the Museo Nacional de Antropología, Madrid
As I remembered, the room with the skeleton was just off the main hall, to the left as you enter the building. The room is designated "Origins of the Museum," and a plaque explains that the museum was founded by Dr Pedro González Velasco, a nineteenth century pioneer of anatomy and professor at Madrid University, and called the "Museum of Anatomy," but was popularly known as the Anthropological Museum. it opened in 1875. The scope of the collection was natural history in general (animal, vegetable and mineral). Dr Velasco spent all his money on building the museum and was ruined financially, and when he died, his widow sold it to the government. After many changes of name and of government department, in 2004 the museum began a renovation programme starting with the Africa Room, then moving on to the Asia Room, and the Physical Anthropology Room, which is where the skeletons are. The renovation was completed in 2008.

The Physical Anthropology Room, is an attempt to recreate an example of the cabinets of natural history that were popular until the beginning of the 20th century, with examples from the museum's collection (most of the specimens of which are in storage). Each exhibit is chosen to represent features, normal anatomical variations, pathologies, injuries, and ethnic differences. The picture below shows an interesting collection of death masks of people of different ethnic groups.

The "Origins of the Museum" Room
The centrepiece of the room is the skeleton of the "Giant of Extremadura." This person, whose name was Agustín Luengo, was born in 1849 and due to his unusual physical features (he was 2.35 metres tall) went to work from an early age in a circus, of which he was one of the main attractions. Dr González visited him and they signed an agreement that the Professor paid him a sum of money in return for his consent to use his body for scientific research post-mortem. Agustín died in Madrid in 1875, aged only 26. Dr Velasco performed a public dissection, made a plaster cast and preserved the skeleton, which is today on display in the museum.
Plaster cast of the "Giant of Extremadura"
Skeleton of the "Giant of Extremadura"

I was also struck by the mummified naked body of a woman laying in a glass case, with no name. The label begins "the earliest record of the presence of the mummy appears in the correspondence of..." This person was a "Guanche," one of the aboriginal inhabitants of the Canary Islands. What she would think about being exposed in this way one can wonder at.

Mummy of a Guanche Woman


To see the catalogue page for the skeleton incredibly, there's no stable URL, so go to the catalogue search form and type CE5417 in the "Inventario" field (CE3332 for the mummy).

Mora, C., Antropología física. Museo Nacional de Antropología, Madrid, 1993.

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