London museum removes 'Irish giant' skeleton from exhibit

 

Skeleton of Charles Byrne, Center, Hunter Museum, London, 2012. David Gee/Alamy Stock Photo

Charles Byrne didn't want to go to the museum. At least he was 7 feet 7 inches tall, and Byrne said he gained fame and fortune in 18th-century England as an "Irish giant." From Edinburgh to London, people paid or bickered for his height. Legend has it that by the time he died in 1783, at the age of 22, he had told his friends, surgeons, and anatomists, that I should bury him at sea. prevent him from entering. his body.

He didn't get his wish. Instead, 18th-century British surgeon and anatomist John Hunter sent his skeleton to a friend of Byrne, along with hundreds of specimens of flora and fauna that were on display at his House of Hunters in Leicester Square, London. rice field. I was. He paid £500. It became the center of the collection that eventually formed the Hunter Museum. Today, more than 80,000 people pass through its doors annually.

Now, more than two centuries after his death, the Hunter Commission announced this month that it would grant at least some of Byrne's wishes. After five years of renovations, his skeleton, one of his most famous exhibits, will disappear when the museum reopens in March.

"What happened historically, what Hunter did was wrong," said Dawn Kemp, director of the Royal College of Surgeons, of which the Hunter Museum is now part. do you want to fix it? The first step is to hide Vern's skeleton. ”

According to the Hunter Museum, there need to record documenting Byrne's wishes. Not much is known about his family besides that he lived in rural Northern Ireland. In 1781, at the age of twenty, Byrne moved to London and decided to become a showman.



18th-century engraving of an Irish giant.


At the time, one popular theory about his height was that he was born in a haystack, according to a 2012 documentary. It was determined that there was a tumor that caused

"It's a delicate situation," Kemp said. If skeletons help us understand and improve human health, we should consider the benefits of living.

Booker Prize-winning author Hilary Mantell, who died last year, used Byrne's story in her 1998 novel The Giant O'Brien. In 2020, Mantell called for Byrne's skeleton to be returned to Ireland. From Bones, I think I learned as much as I could and I'm honored to be able to put him to rest," she told The Guardian.

However, some researchers disagree with this. Because medical knowledge is constantly evolving. To that end, the museum says it will keep the skeletons and make them available for "honest research."

Marta Koubonitz, a professor of endocrinology at Queen Mary University in London who studies burn genes, says, "We shouldn't think we know everything now.

Indeed, Byrne's skeleton provided new answers as medicine evolved. In 1909, when American surgeons examined Byrne's body, they found that he had a tumor in his brain. About a century later, researchers, including Dr. Korbonits, extracted his DNA from Byrne's teeth and discovered that he too had a rare genetic mutation that he didn't know until 2006.

"Without public opinion, it doesn't matter," Dr. Koubonitz said.



Queen Elizabeth II looks at the skeleton of Charles Byrne at the Hunter Museum in London in 1962. PA Image via Getty Images

Since its discovery in 2011, researchers have identified people with the same genetic mutations as burns, helping to prevent the condition through preventative screening, especially among children who haven't yet shown symptoms. I got

"Many people have benefited from this research," he said Dr. Koubonitz.

Human remains are subject to the UK's Her Human Tissues Act 2004, which only allows the release of remains that are over 100 years old.

According to Rebecca Whiting, a bioarchaeologist at the British Museum, work is underway to find a way to display them.

Visitors are accustomed to seeing human remains in museums and appreciating the stories that skeletons can tell about the past culturally and scientifically.

Other museums have recently addressed the ethics surrounding human remains. In 2020, the Pitt Hee Rivers Museum in Oxford, England, decided to remove all human remains from its galleries, saying the exhibits enforced racist stereotypes. This debate is part of a broader debate about what to do with human remains removed from their countries of origin without the consent of European museums.

At the Hunterian Museum, Byrne's skeleton is the centerpiece of the collection and has been awe-inspiring to visitors for years, said Kemp, the museum's director. the nearest

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