Ethical Entanglements

The caring for human remains in museums and research

A Research Project on Research Ethics

Research on human remains is a part of a long scientific tradition. Today museums are the custodians of extensive collections and both skeletal remains and soft tissues. In the Humanities and Social Sciences, research on human remains provide valuable information of the lived experience of people in the past. At the same time, reservations are made against research on the remains of people who were never able to consent. Laws and guidelines have been developed to regulate the issue, but these have for the most part been developed to handle the remains from indigenous peoples/minorities, and do not include provisions for all remains. Similarly, medical laws and regulations do not consider older remains. Researchers who work on these collections therefore find themselves in a relatively unregulated area, which risks undermining the legitimacy of the research. Through a series of comparative studies of practices and guidelines in museums, this project seeks to elucidate how ethical decisions are made and what values inform these decisions.

Three Approaches

The project approaches the issue from three directions:

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Decision Making in Museums

This study consists of a mapping and analysis of the attitudes, rationales and arguments informing choices made in museums curating human remains from archaeological, medical and ethnographic contexts. The purpose of this study is to identify conscious and unconscious value systems underlying the decision making. The study is conducted by Liv Nilsson Stutz.

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Comparing research ethics on human remains in related fields in the Natural Sciences

This project will benchmark existing ethics practice in museums and archaeology and best practices in specific forensic science fields: forensic anthropology, forensic archaeology, biomolecular archaeology and aDNA studies. It will explore how postmortem privacy, individuality and bodily integrity of human remains is defined and regulated in these fields. The study was initially conducted by Hayley Mickleburgh and is now carried out by Rita Peyroteo Stjerna.

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The historically known and the anonymous

The discourse around treatment of bodies and body parts is often different for historically-known individuals than for anonymous prehistoric humans. This project will review the ethical discussion about historically-identified whose remains have been or are exhibited in European museums. The study is conducted by Sarah Tarlow.

This project is funded by Riksbankens Jubileumsfond. Stiftelsen för humanistisk och samhällsvetenskaplig forskning in a special call for Research on Research Ethics.

About Us

The project is carried out by Liv Nilsson Stutz, Rita Peyroteo Stjerna and Sarah Tarlow.

More about us

Get In Touch

  • liv.nilssonstutz@lnu.se
  • +46 709 691088


c/o Liv Nilsson Stutz Department of Cultural Sciences Linnaeus University 351 95 Växjö, SWEDEN