Image of Damien Hirst holding severed head should not be exhibited, argue experts

Posted by er134 at Jul 16, 2013 10:42 AM |
University of Leicester archaeologists have criticised a gallery for displaying an image of artist Damien Hirst with his arm around the head of a dead man

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 16 July 2013

A “shocking” photograph of Damien Hirst embracing a severed head should be removed from an exhibition, according to Leicester experts.

An academic and archaeologist from the University of Leicester’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History have sent letters of complaint to the New Art Gallery Walsall following their display of the image.

They assert the image shows no respect for the man – who would still be recognisable to friends and family - and goes against every professional standard for how the dead should be treated.

The image, titled ‘With Dead Head’, shows a grinning Hirst aged 16, clutching the head at a Leeds morgue in 1981.

He had managed to get into the morgue with a friend who was studying microbiology – and picked up the head of a cadaver which was undergoing post mortem examination.

The image – which has been exhibited previously at other galleries including Tate Modern – appears in the Walsall gallery’s current exhibition ‘Epstein and Hirst: birth, death and religion’.

The piece was lent to the gallery from the ARTIST ROOMS collection – a partnership between the Art Fund, Tate and National Galleries of Scotland.

Matthew Beamish, of University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS), was shocked when he saw the image while visiting the gallery.

Matthew, a project officer for ULAS, believes that the display of the image goes against the ethical standards observed by those who deal with the bodies of the dead.

Matthew drew the image to the attention of his colleague Professor Sarah Tarlow, an expert on archaeological ethics and the excavation of the dead.

They wrote a letter of complaint to the gallery, arguing that the display of the image is an abuse of power and a betrayal of trust.

They have since received a response from the gallery, but felt the response did not adequately address their complaints.

Professor Sarah Tarlow has written extensively on the ethics of the excavation and display of the dead.

She has written several journal papers on archaeological ethics, and her chapter on 'Archaeological ethics and the people of the past' appears in The Ethics of Archaeology, published by Cambridge University Press.

Professor Tarlow said: “The image is shocking. I don’t think it should be on public display. It deserves a place in Hirst’s archive, but not in a gallery.

“It is a betrayal of trust to the deceased man, who has evidently donated his body to medical science – a philanthropic act. His body has not been used for a serious purpose.

“To make it worse, his face is potentially recognisable – a family member or neighbour might look at it and recognise him.

“I think the gallery’s response to our complaint was irrelevant and totally misses the points we have raised.

“There has been quite a lot written on the picture in the art world – but the writing focuses on either what the picture says about Hirst’s ‘personal journey’ or how the image challenges viewers. It does not acknowledge that there is a third individual involved – the deceased man.

“As archaeologists, we are very sensitive to treating human remains with dignity. There is a power imbalance between us and the deceased.

“There are codes of ethics for archaeological practitioners which specify the remains of the dead need to be treated with respect. It is part of every archaeologist’s education and training – and would also be the case for medical students.”

Matthew Beamish said: “I was a bit staggered to see the ethical issues around the display of the dead - which I am acutely aware of – had not been addressed at all by the artist or the gallery. There was nothing referring to the ethical issues in any of the notes around the piece.

“If we are going to excavate human remains, we have to apply for a licence from the Home Office. One of the guidelines in the licence they issue is that any remains should be treated with respect.”



Professor Sarah Tarlow can be contacted at:

More information about Professor Tarlow can be found here:

Matthew Beamish can be contacted at:

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