The twenty-year-old Pedro Antonio Cano was very tall. So high that, in 1792, the viceroy of New Granada —today Colombia— decided to send that native giant to the king of Spain, Carlos IV, in a war frigate, along with a yellow parrot. After a dangerous journey of almost three months by the ocean and eight days in diligence by the Peninsula, Cano, a peasant who had been dressed as a Hungarian soldier, arrived on August 26 at the Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso (Segovia), where he was received by the monarch. It is possible to relive the astonishment that Charles IV felt, because the monumental skeleton of that American man is currently exhibited in a showcase in the Javier Puerta Anatomy Museum, in the Faculty of Medicine of the Complutense University of Madrid. An international trend is making many institutions rethink the exhibition of this type of human remains. One of the largest medical museums in the world, the Mütter in Philadelphia (United States), has just removed from its website all the images of its immense collection to review them one by one.
Almost no one knows that in Madrid the bones of an American man torn from his land are exposed to take him to the Bourbon king. Not even the museum itself knew it, until the historian Luis Ángel Sánchez discovered it in 2017. The researcher was reading an edition of Don Quixote from 1833, in which the editor added a note about authentic giants that mentioned the skeleton of a certain Pedro Antonio Cano in Madrid. Sanchez rummaged through the archives to trace the story. He found out that such a tall American stayed to live in Madrid, with a life pension – granted by the king – that multiplied by 10 the usual salary of a worker. In the early morning of August 17, 1804, some religious alerted the College of Surgery of San Carlos, founded a few years earlier in the basement of what is now the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid, of the death of the giant. The surgeons appropriated Cano's corpse and dissected it to expose his remains in the anatomical cabinet of the institution. And the bones ended up in the Complutense, mistakenly labeled as "Extremaduran giant".
The skeleton of Pedro Antonio Cano, in the Museum of Anatomy Javier Puerta, in Madrid.Museum of Anatomy Javier Puerta/UCM
The skeleton impresses. The director of the Madrid museum, Fermín Viejo Tirado, with a long white beard, looks diminutive next to him. "He measures 2.15 meters, like Pau Gasol," he explains. In front of Cano's remains there is another skeleton, attributed to a Napoleonic soldier, with dark spots on his bones, produced by mercury salts with which some venereal diseases, such as syphilis, were treated. A few meters away are three mummified corpses, with their chests open, their viscera in the air and a gloomy grimace. Those three people, dissected by surgeon Pedro González Velasco in the nineteenth century, had their hearts on their right, a malformation known as situs inversus.
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"The human remains are only exhibited in guided tours, so we can make sure to tell their story with the utmost respect," says Viejo Tirado. Photographs in the museum are prohibited. "We expose Cano's skeleton because it teaches us a gigantism. The problem is that he was born at a time when they were seen as monsters. They were exhibited in circuses and in the fairground barracks with the 'Come and see'. We cannot fall into the same mistake," he stresses. Viejo Tirado asks not to sacralize the human remains. Medical students, he recalls, collect bones from cemeteries every year without controversy arising over a supposed interruption of eternal rest.
Necklace of genital warts made in the nineteenth century, from the collection of the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia.Mütter Museum
The Mütter Museum, of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, houses a collection of 1,300 bottles with human remains in alcohol, mainly organs with different diseases, but also more shocking pieces, such as the brain of the assassin of US President James Abram Garfield in 1881 and a nineteenth-century necklace in which pearls are genital warts. The museum also boasts of being "one of only two places in the world that house Einstein's brain," despite the fact that the German physicist requested to be cremated precisely to avoid the cult of his remains.
Kate Quinn, director of the Mütter, explains that they have "temporarily" removed their videos from the internet, so that a committee of experts can review them one by one and rule "if they conform to the best practices in terms of respectful exhibition of human remains". Quinn cites three factors: legitimate possession of those remains, consent to expose them, and proper contextualization so that they have educational value. "These are challenges for all museums that exhibit human remains," he warns.
The skeleton of Pedro Antonio Cano has been misidentified for decades. The website of the Complutense museum, in fact, still classifies him as an "Extremaduran giant", but the remains of the authentic Extremaduran giant – Agustín Luengo (1849-1875), a man of 2.35 meters born in a village in Badajoz – were actually exhibited in the National Museum of Anthropology, also in Madrid. The management of this institution, after a deep reflection, decided to remove all human remains from public view in May 2022, except for a reduced head of a man decapitated by one of the Amazonian groups popularly known as jíbaros, as explained by Patricia Alonso, curator of the collections of America and Oceania.
Reduced head of a man decapitated by an Amazonian group, exhibited in the National Museum of Anthropology, in Madrid.Ministry of Culture and Sport
"We think that human remains can be exhibited in museums as long as the community of origin is not against it, when they are essential to understand the discourse, are contextualized and are presented with respect," argues Alonso. The National Museum of Anthropology preserves more than 4,400 human remains in its warehouses, mainly skulls, but also six mummies and 13 complete skeletons, such as that of a Filipino woman brought to Spain by Domingo Sánchez, a nineteenth-century explorer who desecrated graves in the dead of night with a shotgun on his shoulder.
The cartouche of the museum's only human remains now tells that the Shuar of Ecuador cut off the heads of their enemies, discarded the skull and reduced the size of the skin of the face with boiling water, but abandoned this practice around 1960. The text also details that the fashion among Western collectors to acquire reduced heads caused an increase in wars between these Amazonian peoples since the late nineteenth century. There were beheadings to meet demand. The museum announced its "ethical repositioning" in August 2022: "In recent years, there has been a shift in the consideration of human remains in museums. Their status within the collections is unique in that they are not mere cultural goods, they are the remains of a deceased person and should be treated with dignity and respect."
One of the most unique anatomical museums in the world is the Fragonard, created in 1766 on the outskirts of Paris, at the Royal Veterinary School. In its showcases appear two-headed cows, lambs with only one eye, horses with horns and skeletons of animals of all kinds, but they are only an appetizer of the jewel of the museum, which is hidden in a room with dim light: the collection of human corpses flayed in the eighteenth century by the surgeon Honoré Fragonard, in order to teach anatomy. Among the skinned bodies are a rider on horseback, a menacing man with a horse's jaw in his hand and three child figures labeled "dancing fetuses."
One of the corpses skinned in the eighteenth century and exhibited in the Fragonard Museum, on the outskirts of Paris.
The director of the Fragonard Museum, veterinarian Christophe Degueurce, says there has never been any controversy in France over the display of these flayed corpses, not even those they dance. "The anatomist's goal was to place the body in a situation that would allow maximum information to be obtained: a three-dimensional vision with a moving composition to appreciate joints, muscles and blood vessels," explains Degueurce. "The imperative is to ensure respect for the dignity of the human body, which implies not turning it into a lucrative spectacle. You will never see a Halloween party at the Fragonard Museum, "adds the veterinarian, who is critical of the traveling exhibition of corpses Bodies, which can be visited until June 11 in Murcia for 10 euros.
"The ethical questions linked to anthropology or ethnology are radically different from those raised in an anatomy museum," says Degueurce. "In anatomy, the exposed individual only serves an anatomical function. It is, in short, a symbol of humanity and, in general, it is dissected and no one could recognize a kinship or its ethnic origin, "reasons the director of Fragonard.
The doctor Anton Erkoreka has directed for a quarter of a century the Basque Museum of the History of Medicine, on the university campus of Leioa, in Greater Bilbao. There you can visit, by appointment, a room in which more than 400 bottles with diseased organs, such as lungs with tuberculosis and silicosis, and five fetuses, one of them without a brain, are kept under lock and key. They are human remains from the public hospitals of Basurto and Gorliz during the twentieth century. "We can't give up these collections because there's a wave of political correctness," Erkoreka said. "Having this type of piece has been fundamental to identify the microorganisms that caused pandemics, such as the 1918 flu virus," he warns. It is the most visited room of the museum.
Room with diseased organs in the Basque Museum of History of Medicine, in Leioa.UPV
The human remains with name and surname are the most controversial, especially those that have a controversial or, directly, scandalous origin. The Hunterian Museum in London, at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, decided in January to remove from its showcases the skeleton of Charles Byrne, a man of 2.31 meters, who died in 1783 at age 22, who made a living exhibiting himself as "the Irish giant". Byrne said he did not want to be dissected by anatomists, but surgeon John Hunter paid friends a small fortune for his corpse. The museum no longer exhibits the skeleton, but keeps it in its collections, in the warehouse.
The Irishman Cornelius Magrath was also a very tall man. He died in 1760 at the age of 24, with a height of 2.26 meters. Evi Numen, curator of the Old Museum of Anatomy at Trinity College Dublin, shows its imposing skeleton, in a visit requested by this newspaper. Magrath died on the spot, and the doctors who treated him decided to keep his skeleton to teach other colleagues the problem of gigantism.
Evi Numen, curator of the Old Museum of Anatomy, Trinity College, Dublin.Evi Numen
"I think people are paying more attention to the collections because of the controversies. When there is a scandal, you end up having many more eyes on you. And then people are actually interested, fascinated and want to learn," says Numen. The conservator worked at the Mütter in Philadelphia before moving to Dublin. He has been one of the most critical voices with the blackout of the American museum's website. "These collections are very important, it would be very sad if they disappeared. It would be a huge loss for education and research. Honestly, I think we have to ask ourselves a question: why is it better to hide the story instead of talking about it?"
The skeleton of Pedro Antonio Cano tells a story of enlightened despotism and colonial domination, of peasant subjects and absolute monarchs. It's Spain's uncomfortable past. Barely 1,800 people, mostly high school students and retirees, gaze each year at the bones of the American giant, misidentified for decades. The anatomist Fermín Viejo Tirado emphasizes his position, next to the showcase with Cano's bones: "I have no problem exposing human remains, but you have to treat them with respect and show them if they teach you something, not for the morbid. There must be scientific motives, not to exhibit them as was done in the nineteenth century with giants, dwarves, very ugly men and bearded women."
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