Return of Human Remains? Practices, implications and ethical issues. Report from a seminar in Oslo.

On November 4, 2021 The National Committee for Research on Human Remains (part of the Norwegian National Research Ethics Committee) organized a seminar to discuss the repatriation of human remains and the treatment of human remains in museums.

Several interesting papers brought perspectives to the issue and some raised complex and interesting questions. Reports about productive and successful repatriations from the National Museum of Finland to Mesa Verde in 2020 (presented by Director General Elina Antitila), and from the Swedish History Museum to Lycksele (presented by Adriana Aurelius, PhD student at Umeå University) in 2019, provided good examples of how the practice of repatriation – both international and national – is becoming embraced by Scandinavian museums. As practical support for this process, many attendants referred to international and national guidelines and recommendations as having been central in guiding the process. Kicki Eldh and Gabriella Ericson at the Swedish National Heritage Board presented the work of developing such support documents for Swedish Museums.

But there is diversity in how the issues is being broached in different Scandinavian countries. Ina H. Tegen, PhD student at Aarhus University presented her work on the issue of repatriation from a Danish perspective, where the archaeological and museum communities so far have been less willing to embrace the process, and where decision making regarding archaeological remains in general, including human remains, tends to be very decentralized and relies on individual decision making. At the same time, archaeology has a very high profile in Denmark, engaging multiple constituencies – also outside of the academy. She introduced the concept “embedded stakeholders” in her ongoing work to map attitudes and connections across this complex web.

Other papers sought to problematize the practice beyond the straight forward story and push the boundaries. Asgeir Svestad‘s (The Arctic University in Norway, UiT) paper on the fraught repatriation and reburials of Sámi remains at Neiden and Skjellevik, both in Norway, raised questions about the control of the process and the role of the Church in the reburial of people that predate Christianity. Jonny Geber (University of Edinburgh) presented the complicated case of Maria Grann, a woman who died in her late 20s, probably of tuberculosis, at a hospital in Lund in the 1860s. The few notes that remain of her indicate that she was poor and did not have any relatives in the area. She is described as a “Lapp Woman” or “Lapp Girl” from Lycksele. Most of her body was probably buried in the general area for unclaimed patients, but her cranium was collected to become incorporated in the anatomical collection of the university. It is now at the Lund University History Museum. Despite efforts to establish her identity it has not been possible to trace her history back to the Lycksele area or to a Sámi heritage, and even if there has been some pressure from the media, there is no current claim for her remains to be repatriated. The case, showed both how difficult and heartbreaking provenience research can be, but also how much direct engagement between researchers and descendant communities means to build trust and relationships.

Image from an urban excavation in Norway in the 1950s. When human remains younger than 1537 are not protected by law, can we avoid this kind of unethical handing in urban excavations? Slide from the presentation by Nina Elisabeth Valstrand and Monica Nordanger Enehaug.

Other ethical dimensions of the excavation and curation of human remains were discussed from various angles. Nina Elisabeth Valstrand and Monica Nordanger Enehaug, PhD students from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology discussed how the Norwegian Cultural Heritage Act only protects materials that are older than 1537, often resulting in more careless handling of younger finds, including human remains. This, they argued, is both ethically problematic and a scientific loss since bio-archaeological research on these kinds of remains holds the key to unlock osteo-biographies of the past allowing us to better understand the lived experience of past peoples. Angeli Lefkaditou (researcher at the University of Oslo) discussed the ethics of museum displays of human remains through the case of “Maren i Myra,” an unknown woman who died in the 19th century and whose body, preserved in adipocere, has become a museal curiosity still exhibited at the National Museum of Science and Technology in Oslo.

Finally the paper by Josephine Munch Rasmussen (post doc at the University of Agder) and Vibeke M. Viestad (postdoc at the University of Oslo) problematized the process of repatriation from the Kon Tiki Museum in Oslo. Their study highlights the intricate political dimensions of the creation of Heyerdahl as a national Norwegian hero and “creator” of Rapa Nui heritage and history – an image that persists despite the postcolonial critique of the assumption and despite the evidence of ethically questionable collection practices – and the current agenda to “decolonize the museum” though agreements with the Chilean state, not the descending communities in Rapa Nui. The study shows how the legacy of a problematic collector can live on to the point of becoming an absent present curator even beyond his death. This paper took us to the heart of both why repatriation matters, and why it is important that it is done right. The study has been published in the Journal of Critical Arts.

In their presentation, Josephine Much Rasmussen and Vibeke M. Viestad demonstrated the continued creation in the national discourse of Heyerdahl as a Norwegian National hero and as the creator of Rapa Nui history and heritage.

The seminar was very rich and stimulating. It was positive to see such a thoughtful debate, and also to witness the many ways in which Scandinavian museums and the heritage sector more broadly are entering into an era of engagement with descendant communities through repatriation.

The seminar left me with many insights, but also a few questions. Is it possible that the general embracing of repatriation also can hold new challenges? When a social or activist movement gains ground and becomes mainstream, it runs the risk of becoming appropriated. For the future we must make sure that repatriation does not become a performance carried out by by museums to promote themselves as socially conscious. I must underline that I have not yet seen any evidence for this. The progress made thus far is important, and this potential risk should not be used to question repatriation per se, but rather be viewed as a small concern that we need to keep in mind as we support the process going forward.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s