In a previous article, we noted the growing call for repatriation of human remains from museums and laboratories associated with colonial racial science. These demands included (and continue to include) not just human remains but the objects associated with them, which were separated and categorized into different collections, as well as the spoils of colonial looting of art, artifacts, and objects. This call echoes what has increasingly become a norm in the aftermaths of political violence, namely the search and recovery (where possible) of those disappeared or unjustly buried. Struck by the sheer extent of such demands across many settings, as well as their intersection with other movements for historical justice and reparation—#BlackLivesMatter, reparations for slavery and colonial genocide, the demands of First Nations peoples, to name but a few—we claimed this as a “moment of return.” Somewhat counterintuitively, given the intensity of a global pandemic and the associated constraints on social space, this moment, far from losing momentum, has intensified and become both more visible and audible. One of the distinctive features of this time has been that despite restrictions on gatherings, such movements have refused to stand down and continue to assemble alongside an ever-rising death toll and its associated burden of burial and difficulties of mourning.

In South Africa these issues intersect in several ways. Two aspects are of particular interest to us. Firstly, various actors, including curatorial professionals and scholars, have brought the racialized dead of colonial museum and laboratory collections into conversation with the dead, the mutilated, and the missing of apartheid-era atrocities. They have done so through practices of repatriation, reburial, and commemoration, as well as through scholarship. These connections and parallels have been replicated in our own work and have enabled the concerns of critical museum studies to converse with the field of forensic history, which has been forged through the afterlives of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Secondly, in South Africa, the moment of return has been understood as a project of rehumanization but one that is often overshadowed by national rituals of incorporation into a memorial complex of national heritage and nation-building. Placing the dead of these genealogies and their associated projects of restoration into templates and rituals of the commemorative state has extended, rather than resolved, their condition of missing-ness.1

We have sought to understand the practices of return and reburial through the concept of forensic history. Here, and influenced by the project Forensic Architecture and its attention to the etymology of forensis as field and forum, we have sought to think of what history has to offer such work. To make an obvious point (although one often ignored or abused), we cannot consider bodies to be without history. More so, against the immediate and narrowly constituted forensic event, history’s interest and potential to engage with multiple temporalities enables the production of genealogies of racial violence and atrocity, which include the post-lives of the bodies of the dead to whom we speak. In this sense, the forensic persists through the post-lives of the dead. The particularity and correspondence of these genealogies, and our mediation thereof, is grounded in history’s commitment to the integrity of the detail and its critical practices of constituting and reading archives (including those that do not exist). Forensic history then attends to the modes and means of death and post-lives as well as the multitude of ways in which the dead are missing and missed.


Rehumanization arises through the particularity of the genealogies of the dead. In the interests of racial science, bodies entered colonial museum collections, such as in the skeletal collections of the South African and McGregor Museums, or the remains of Sara Baartman in the Museum of Natural History in Paris, or those collected by anthropologist, Rudolf Pöch at the Natural History Museum and other collecting institutions in Vienna. Already objectified in life as “living fossils” or “pre-humans,” these bodies were macerated, defleshed, and their mortal remains turned into racialized museum objects for display or specimens to be studied in laboratories. The dead of apartheid-era atrocities were also racialized, desubjectified, and made into an enemy, available for torture and elimination. In a number of instances, their bodies were mutilated through explosion or fire, buried in clandestine graves or as anonymous paupers in formal graves. As Élisabeth Anstett and Jean-Marc Dreyfus note, the work of the perpetrator does not end with death but extends beyond death through dehumanization.

It is for these reasons that recovery and return has been strongly inflected with practices and processes of rehumanization. While we have emphasized the centrality of identification—the restoring of the name—rehumanization occurs through all stages of the investigation, research, recovery, identification, and return to family or community. In most cases, restoring an individual name is not possible for the dead of colonial racial science. In these cases, and even if named, the emphasis has been on returning the dead as humans and as citizens, rather than as objects of a museum collection. It is not only the bodies of the dead who require rehumanization but also the living, who were themselves racialized and desubjectified, enabling the denial of a body and the rights and rites of mourning. Practices of familial rehumanization include acknowledgement, processes of consultation, and direct involvement in the search and recovery of remains.

In South Africa, the successful identification of remains is customarily followed by handover of the remains contained in a full-size coffin, at an official ceremony leading ultimately to a reburial ceremony. Such moments enable a return to social networks and community when unnatural death marked families in complex and sometimes isolating ways. These processes tend to be officially framed as seeking to bring “closure” (even though those engaged in these processes may recognize this as problematic). In South Africa, search and recovery of both the dead of racial science and apartheid-era atrocity have dominantly taken place through the agency of the state, often encouraged or even driven by families and former combatants from the liberation struggle.

Missing-ness and personhood

It is in the choreography of ceremonies through which the dead are variously mourned, welcomed and celebrated, demuseumed, citizened, and reburied that they are also incorporated into a memorial complex of national heritage and/or nationhood. In the moment of return, then, reincorporation into community is often eclipsed by reabsorption into the script of nation and its history. It is in this appropriation by the state as ancestors or heroes of the nation that we see the question of missing-ness emerge.

Marking the contours of the return, while seemingly enabling practices of “closure,” underscores instead a tension that ascribes rehumanizing practices to nation, overshadowing mourning and the return to family and communities of care. In their appropriation by the state for the purposes of nationhood, the dead are remembered, as Jenny Edkins would argue, not for who but for what they were—bodies of racial science (now recuperated) or heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle. This instrumentalization misses the “who” or “what” that Edkins names as “the person-as-such” or “the singular, irreplaceable person,” who has gone missing once again. Missing-ness in this sense, then, is a marker of processes and practices of being missed and missing. This realm of missing-ness is thus one of uncertainty and undecidability, (re)presenting absences as presence. Indeed, in missing the human as person it effects a form of dehumanization.

It is tempting to fill that missing-ness with personhood and to call for practices less bound by necropolitics. Nonetheless, arriving at and abiding by a question of missing-ness, where missing-ness is also an analytical category through which to (re)imagine the dead and the various iterations of their figuring, is not, we think, unproductive. Rather than the desire for personhood, often reduced to biography, missing-ness enables a space—a forum—wherein both the lack and excess of the liminal position of the dead are marked as both missing and returned, cautioning against stabilizing the very instability and unknowability that marks them. Erasing the human is never complete or, as Eyal Weizman and Thomas Keenan put it, “Human remains are . . . the kind of things from which the trace of the living subject cannot be easily erased—it lingers and haunts it.” If, then, to be human is not as self-evident as one would assume, the condition of missing-ness poses the human as a question. This is a question that must be abided by so as to assert an ethics of political care to which all are bound.

  1. As an abstract noun, the suffix “-ness” in missing-ness signals a lack or excess, instability, a condition and symptom of being missed and missing. R. Moosage, “Missing-ness, History and Apartheid-Era Disappearances: The Figuring of Siphiwo Mthimkulu, Tobekile ‘Topsy’ Madaka and Sizwe Kondile as Missing Dead Persons,” unpublished PhD thesis, University of the Western Cape and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, 2018.