Reading Alexandra Ion: on ruins, nostalgia, and lonely specimens

Last week the project invited Alexandra Ion, formerly at the Institut de Antropologie Francisc I. Rainer, Academia Romana in Bucharest, to discuss her article “Anatomy Collections as “modern ruins”: The nostalgia of lonely specimens, published in 2021 in Science in Context.

This beautifully written paper explores a range of entangled issues relating to the collection and scientific handling of human remains. The piece departs from the discovery of a strange specimen – a preserved human face in a wooden crate – in the attic of the Francisc I. Rainer Institute of Anthropology in Bucharest in 2010. The face, extracted from a human cadaver at the turn of the last century, showcased a unique method to preserve human tissue developed by anthropologist and pathologist Francisc I. Rainer, a technology that very soon after its conception fell into oblivion, and with it, the scientific relevance of the face itself.

The face in anterior and posterior view.
Original published in Ion 2021. Intentionally blurred for this blog. Published with permission from Alexandra Ion.

The article explores the history of the specimen and contextualises it within the anatomy practice of the time. We can follow a sort of chaîne opératoire of the making of anatomical objects from human bodies, and how the process unfolds in space, in different parts of the building – from the intake on the ground floor, through different rooms of preparation and display. At some point in time as it becomes obsolete and forgotten, it moves out of the public eye into a closed crate in the attic, tucked away with other items from the past, including papers and photographs. An object among objects. Form here it then emerges at the time of its discovery in 2010. But it is changed. No longer a valuable piece to demonstrate technological skill and methodological progress, it has become an uncomfortable artifact of a problematic past. Like many liminal phenomena, by definition situated between categories, it causes discomfort. Ion describes how she moves it through the building to find a place for it that seems appropriate…the office, the lab….it no longer fits anywhere.

The attic of the Francisc I. Rainer Institute of Anthropology. Published in Ion 2021.
Photo by Alexandra Ion. Published with permission from Alexandra Ion.

In many ways the journey described by Ion for this specimen, is typical for many anatomical collections today. They have become matter out of place (sensu Mary Douglas). No longer useful in the way they were once perceived and even made, they have transformed into something strange, historical, and perhaps, to some, upsetting. The transfer of many anatomical collections from medical spaces to history museums is a tangible expression on a larger scale of this redefinition.

The recurring question then becomes: What to do with them? This is a central question also for the Ethical Entanglements project. Ion offers an interesting approach when suggesting that we can view them, not only as archives (which they are), but also as ruins. Drawing inspiration from Thora Petursdottir’s and Bjornar Olsen’s writings on modern ruins, she views them as “caught between the past and present, between fascination and strangeness.” This opens up a venue to explore our own encounter with them as meaningful and important in new ways, drawing on scientific curiosity, but also emotion and nostalgia.

How do ethics relate to this? The paper centres on the multiple ethics entangled in the engagement with human remains – something that our discussion about the paper came to focus on:

“Alexandra’s inspiring approach to anatomy collections as “modern ruins” made me reflect about our responsibility towards human remains collections. As archaeologists, we work on the principle of preservation through documentation, and it would not occur to us to bury an archaeological site before investigation and documentation. Likewise, I believe it is our duty to engage with these legacies, however uneasy they may be.”

Rita Peyroteo Stjerna

“Alexandra’s paper was intelligent, thought-provoking and sophisticated. I was delighted that she was able to talk with us about it. In a wide-ranging discussion, we talked about how we can extend debates beyond the post-colonial critique, about multiple ethics and how we manage the tension between object and person that human remains present, among other things. We talked about circumstances in which displaying human remains might be a more appropriate solution than concealing them. We went on talking well past our scheduled hour of discussion, which is testament to how rich and engaging Alexandra’s work is. I hope that we will find ways to include her in some future discussions.”

Sarah Tarlow

I too congratulate Ion on this important and beautiful paper. The metaphor of the ruin is interesting and captures an important dimension in the engagement with human remains of the past, emphasising the emotional and affective in this encounter, adding an important dimension to the scientific and historical values often mentioned in the debate. But it also has limitations.

“…to me, as ruins these human remains from the past remain inhabited, if not necessarily haunted”

Liv Nilsson Stutz

To me it remains a metaphor that captures an encounter between a subject in the presence of an object from the past. But human remains are not neutral objects, something Ion also discusses. I want to embrace the liminality of the category fully, and recognise, as a point of departure, that human remains from the past always retain a certain level of their subjectivity, also in the present. To build on the metaphor: to me, as ruins these human remains from the past remain inhabited, if not necessarily haunted.

Addressing dark heritage in exhibitions. The University Museum in Groningen.

After our visit in Amsterdam I continued to Groningen which aslo has an anatomical collection on display in its University Museum. Here, the anatomical collection is part of the exhibition on the history of the university and its scholars, and it is thus clearly inscribed in the broader history of research and scholarship. A separate room is dedicated for this purpose. The anatomical display is arranged on stepped shelves organised in a semi-circle, with mounted skeletons on top and with preparations of body parts and organs on the lower shelves. The room has a claire-obscure quality with dimmed lights and spots illuminating the white bones, and the body parts almost glowing through the amber coloured liquid of the old preparations. The display is accompanied by an interactive screen where visitors can see close-up photographs of each displayed specimen and read descriptions about pathologies and preparations. The exhibition is extremely interesting, quite moving, and, I must admit, very aesthetic. 

The anatomical collection arranged on stepped semi shelves organised in a semi-circle. Photo by Liv Nilsson Stutz (intentionally manipulated)

On the opposite side in the same room, an exhibition is devoted to the contribution of Petrus Camper (1722-1789). Camper was Professor Medicinae Theoreticae, Anatomiae, Chirurgiae et Botanicae at the University of Groningen from 1763 and to his death. He was an academic celebrity of his time and a leading scholar in many fields, including comparative anatomy.

Tibout Regters – De anatomische les van Petrus Camper. Amsterdam Museum, Public Domain.

As part of his research, Camper studied the anatomical differences between humans and apes, in particular crania and larynxes. To address the context of this research, the museum signage both celebrates and problematises his legacy. The exhibition called “Bitterzoet Erfgoed” (Bittersweet Heritage) informs us that while Camper lived in a time of colonialism and slavery, he “did not accept this worldview” (i.e. slavery). That being said, the text continues “Camper’s work cannot be separated from colonial history,” as “he collected specimens (human and animal) from colonised regions including the skulls and skin specimens on display in this exhibition.” The next sentence sums up the central dilemma:

“This raises complex questions. We want to tell the story of Petrus Camper, but also treat the remains of people who did not choose to become subjects of scientific research with respect”

Text in the exhibition about Petrus Camper at the University Museum in Groningen.

Several human crania are on display in this part of the exhibition, and a color coded map indicates their provenance including Madagascar, Europe, Java, Russian Republic of Kalmykia, Angola, China, Jakarta, and Mongolia.

Display of skulls from different parts of the world. The crania wee collected by Camper for his research into comparative anatomy. Photo: Liv Nilsson Stutz, intentionally blurred.

The transparent and honest way in which the exhibition communicates about the content of the collections and their problematic history, is interesting and quite admirable. The display of remains such as skin samples brings the hot button topic of racism into focus. The exhibition strikes the balance between communicating that while Camper’s research was not seeking to support racism as an ideology and a “scientific” concept, he still worked within a context of colonialism and othering. And while not explicitly stated, the knowledgeable visitor can probably fill in the blanks as to how this research tradition came to be enmeshed with race science only a few generations later. While taking risk with this display, the museum paradoxically takes responsibility for its collections as it does not try to avoid confronting difficult issues or hide its collections.

Skin samples on display in the museum. To the left, skin samples form humans from different parts of the world, displayed in the Bittersweet Heritage exhibition. The samples were used by Camper to understand human variation between white and black skin. To the right, human tattooed skin (the face of a woman and the British and Norwegian flags) exhibited with the skin of whale to illustrate Camper’s work in comparative anatomy. Photos by Liv Nilsson Stutz, intentionally blurred.

Interestingly (and typically) the problematisation is limited to the anthropological research and exhibition, and does not discuss the medical collection displayed only a few meters away in the same room. The context of the “bitter sweet heritage” is not extended to include collection practices from other contexts (such as, presumably, maternity wards and other care facilities). This relates to a more general pattern that we can see in how different categories of human remains sometimes are treated with different consideration and levels of problematisation.

Museum Vrolik and Body Worlds Amsterdam: reflecting on two exhibitions of human remains

In early November, we (Sarah Tarlow and Liv Nilsson Stutz) visited the Netherlands with the objective of viewing two different exhibitions of human remains: Museum Vrolik and Body Worlds, The Happiness Project, Amsterdam. While we realised it would be two distinct experiences, we were not quite prepared for just how radically different these two exhibitions would be, and how entangled the ethics of it all would appear at the end of the day.

The signage to the museum in the hospital foyer underscores the medical context of the collection. Photo by Liv Nilsson Stutz.

The Museum Vrolik is located on the bottom floor of the Amsterdam University Medical Center. As you enter the building you find yourself in a contemporary hospital, but as you turn left and enter the dark space of the museum you take a step into the past. A sign at the entrance cautions you that the exhibition contains human remains and may not be suitable for sensitive visitors. Photography is not allowed. The Museum website states:

“You should compare your position as a visitor to the Museum Vrolik with students of medicine during a practical anatomy session in the dissecting room. They observe and dissect mortal remains, but do so with proper respect and they are not allowed to take photographs of whatever they see in the room”

Museum Vrolik has an impressive collection. The remains were collected between 1750 and 1950. It contains 3300 human bones, skulls, and complete skeletons, 840 anatomical preparations with congenital defects, 1230 human anatomy preparations, 7400 glass negatives, 600 preparations related to dentistry, 530 plaster models and casts, 1760 drawers of brain slices, and 410 wax models. In addition the museum also contains animal bones and preparations. Only a small sample of this impressive collection is exhibited.

Cover of the catalogue of the Museum Vrolik “Forces of Form,” for sale in the museum shop. While I do not want to link to any online content of the displays, I show the cover of this book to provide an impression of the kind of specimens exhibited in the museum.

The exhibition consists of one square shaped room with dimmed lights and aesthetically illuminated glass display cases forming four areas in the center of the room displaying anatomical and pathological specimens, and along the perimeter of the room, a series of display cases that chronicles the history of the collection. It is breathtaking.

The collected are categorized as “objects of science” – but the display invites us to see people who once lived with pain, disability and strength to survive many years under difficult circumstances. It is moving and unsettling all at the same time.

In the historic overview the collection is contextualised with a focus on the collectors and their roles in the history of research. The presentation is honest and transparent and mentions collections from cemeteries and medical wards. In contrast to the matter of fact tone in the texts, the actual exhibition in this part of the museum is sometimes very moving – especially the mounted skeletons of physically disabled individuals, one of which is still leaning on their cane. The juxtaposition between the factual narrative on the signs with the emotional displays is interesting. While only the collectors are visible as agents in the narrative, the collected demand our attention in the display. It suddenly dawns on us that there is contextualisation but no problematisation. The collected are categorised as “objects of science” – but the display invites us to see actual people who once lived with pain, disability and the strength and support to survive many years under difficult circumstances. It is moving and unsettling all at the same time.

The main part of the exhibition focuses on anatomy and pathology. Here there is very little contextualisation of the collection beyond that of the human body itself, which presents itself as a timeless medical fact. The preparations of fetuses and new borns, or of more complete body parts, add a dimension of subjectivity to the exhibition, bringing to the fore a shadow of individual lives – viable or not. But in the end, these remains are exhibited as objects of science.

While an explicit reflection on the ethics of collection is absent from the exhibition, the museum webpage includes a statement that recognises that collection practices in the past were very different to contemporary medical practices, and that it is not possible to know if the deceased or their relatives consented to, or were even aware of the fact that the remains were collected. Just like in the exhibition itself, it is in the voids between what is explicitly stated and what is implicitly felt, that the ethical entanglements emerge for us to reflect on. It is interesting and moving.

Entrance to Body Worlds in Amsterdam, advertising the exhibition of “over 200 real human specimens” in the midst of the Amsterdam tourist district. Photo by Liv Nilsson Stutz.

Later the same day we visited Body Worlds, The Happiness Project, Amsterdam, located in the tourist area of the city center, and marketed at the entrance by a man who, like in a manner that reminded us of old time fair ground exhibitions or freakshow, enthusiastically invited us in.

Three separate displays of plastinated human bodies at Body Worlds Amsterdam. Note the sexualised position of the woman (left), the active position of the male (center). To the right an arrangement of sexual intercourse. Photos by Liv Nilsson Stutz.

Body Worlds has become a world wide sensation and a lucrative private enterprise. Günter Hagen who developed the plastination process which makes it possible to display the anatomical structures of the human body like sculptures, has marketed the venture as a mission to educate lay people about anatomy and health. Body Worlds has been criticised for using unethically sourced bodies, but today claims that all bodies on display are of people who have given their informed consent.

The Amsterdam exhibition mixed the exhibition of plastinated bodies staged in evocative poses with the display of individual organs. The whole bodies were positioned in a way that was always gendered and sometimes even sexualised, with female bodies placed lifted, lying down or leaning to the side with their legs apart, and with male bodies jumping a fence, playing a saxophone and steering a ship. One room was devoted to sexual intercourse. The theme chosen to frame the exhibition was happiness, and it was communicated through basic educational texts about health and well being, and through inspirational quotes. Despite the unique selling point of Body Worlds – the display of actual human bodies (in the middle of the tourist district no less) – the experience seemed artificial. It was difficult to connect to the material/humans on display. The commercialisation of the venture added to the confusion. Was the purpose of the exhibition to provide education, and the plastinated bodies were used as a way to lure people to pay over 20 Euros for a mediocre learning experience? Or, was the educational theme just added on as a justification to show dead human bodies? It was impossible to say.

The contrast between the two exhibitions could not be greater. Museum Vrolik showed old and admittedly sometimes problematic collections, but managed to inspire compassion and emotion, while Body Worlds felt like a commercial carnivalesque display trying to pass as education. Even if these bodies were displayed with consent, the ethics seemed more muddled than ever.

The Anatomical Collection at Karolinska. Report from a seminar.

On March 29, 2022, Karolinska institutet organised a seminar on their anatomical collection. The purpose of the seminar was to present the history of the collection, and to discuss possible ways forward as the institution grapples with a problematic history. This work is part of a broader engagement on behalf of Karolinska with regards to its history, and in particular its past connections to research on “race”, and the place the collection of crania had in this history. As a first formal step of this process of reckoning with the past, the institution raised the issue of honorific names on its campus – a topic already discussed in this blog. The second step is now to handle the collection of human remains.

Biomedicum, Karolinska Institutet – location for the seminar. Photo: Liv Nilsson Stutz

The seminar was introduced by the University President Ole Petter Ottersen who welcomed all to the newly inaugurated lecture hall named in honor of Eva and Georg Klein, both Jewish immigrants from Hungary after the Second World War, and viewed as representing the value of civil discourse and academic conversations also about difficult topics. To me, this introduction rightly framed the collection of human remains as such a difficult topic, as one worthy of civil discourse and academic exchange and – perhaps most importantly, as a topic around which we need to start by listening to one another.

The seminar was not uncontroversial and had received criticism even before it started, for example by Amnesty Sápmi. The critique focused on the fact that the speakers were identified as majority population seniors, and as such not able to speak on behalf of the remains themselves, or on behalf of descendants. This is true. But then again, the participants did not claim to do this, but rather participated to explore the topic from historical, anthropological and legal perspectives and expertise.

As the first speaker, Dr Imelda Helena Ek (Karolinska Institutet), presented her report on the history of the collection and placed it within a broader 19th century context in which race biology was an inherent component. The history of the collection is complicated by the fact that it was partially destroyed by a fire in 1892, during which the archives that today would have allowed researchers to retrace a lot of the history of individual remains, were lost. Typically, as the collection became obsolete for medical science and eventually also problematic, it has circulated between different institutions including Stockholm Univerity, Gutavianum and the Medical History Museum. In 2015 the collection returned to Karolinska and once more became its responsibility. Since the remains were returned they are not available for research and are not exhibited. Several international repatriations have been completed following international praxis. A sensitive part of the collection constitutes the remains of 70 individuals, a majority represented only by their cranium, that were taken from graves (both from prehistoric sites and from abandoned historic cemeteries) in Finland, during an expedition in 1883. While these remains were dug up, they were not part of any regular archaeological excavation, but must be viewed as collected for anatomical purposes. The motivation to collect these remains was to obtain specimen of what was considered to be “Finnish types” for the comparative anatomical collection. There is thus a direct line here between both race science and Sweden’s colonial history. It is generally felt that this collection is problematic, but according to KI any repatriation must be negotiated between the Swedish and the Finnish states. All KI can do is to inform about what they have in their care.

Back of bust of Gustaf Retzius. Source: Stockholms Aktionsverk

The second speaker was me (Liv Nilsson Stutz), and I focused on problematising one of the main ideas of the project Ethical Entaglements, i.e. the way in which human remains are situated on a sliding scale between objects of science and lived lives, and how the ways in which we perceive them depend on their state, character and history, and on external factors such as social and cultural awareness. As a suggestion of consideration for the future I also proposed that instead of rushing to clean out the closets, we approach the responsibility from a perspective of ethics of care, and thus move beyond the idea of formulating strategies based on the perceived value of the remains for science. An ethics of care perspective also means that institutions may have to take long term responsibility for remains that will never be claimed for repatriation, and also for its history and heritage – even when dark and uncomfortable.

The final speaker was professor emerita Kirsti Ström Bull who presented her experiences as a legal scholar involved in the legal cases leading up to the repatriation of Sámi remains from institutions in Norway. These cases have had a long term impact on the handling of ethical evaluation of research on human remains in Norway, where currently a national ethcis committee (Skjelettutvalget) reviews all requests for research on human remains. In cases of Sámi remains, the Sámi parliament is always included in the consultation. This kind of mechanism might be very valuable also for Sweden to consider as we build a more solid research ethics on human remains from all contexts – going beyond the immediate considerations of the Karolinska collection. Professor Bull underscored the importance of allowing the process to take time and be an opportunity to build trust and understanding.

“While we’ve had an academic discussion today on complex issues in which different opinions and criticisms have been raised, what we’ve also discussed concerns the concept of the equal value of all humans.”

President of KI, Professor Ole Petter Ottosen

After the presentation the floor (and online chatroom) opened for questions and comments. Natte Hillerberg from the organisation Sträva at Karolinska (an organisation of students and alumni at Karolinska organising for equal care for all) called out the lack of representation on the panel. She drew attention in particular to the human remains collected in Finland. The Q&A with participants in the auditorium and online explored issues relating to what might happen to the collection in the future, what kind of research questions may be explored, possibilities and experiences of repatriation of human remains from the collection, and what KI can learn from good experiences of repatriation from, for example Norway.

President of KI, Professor Ole Petter Ottosen concluded: “While we’ve had an academic discussion today on complex issues in which different opinions and criticisms have been raised, what we’ve also discussed concerns the concept of the equal value of all humans.”

FEATURED IMAGE: ANATOMICAL PLATES 1855. RETZIUS, ANDERS et al. Museum anatomicum Holmiense quod auspiciis augustissimi regis Oscaris primi ediderunt professores Regiae Scholae Medico.Chirurgicae Caroliensis. Sectio Pathologica.


Some thoughts about the connections between Ethics and Theory. Review of Geller’s Theorizing Bioarchaeology.

I recently published a book review of Pamela L. Geller’s noteworthy book Theorizing Bioarchaeology for the American Journal of Biological Anthropology. The book takes a broad approach to how social and critical theory can inform and improve our study of human remains. The book outlines how a bio-cultural perspective on humanity informed by considerations of practice, habitus, intersectionality, etc., allow us to highlight how power structures, including systemic violence and oppression in the past and present, frame our lived experiences and literally seep into our bones as readable traces of an often unwritten history. What I find particularly interesting is how Geller’s book demonstrates how this more theoretically informed bio-archaeology also leads us toward a more reflexive and ethical practice.

“A bioethos,” Geller writes “is only imaginable if we seek to consciously entangle—materiality and discourse, words and deeds, knowing and being and doing, science and humanities, fact and compassion.”

In the final chapters Geller proposes a way forward toward a more ethical bioarchaeology that in many ways builds on these theoretical insights. “It starts out firmly grounded in a North American experience discussing NAGPRA but evolves to consider race, class, gender, and religion, and to take on a range of emerging ethical conundrums for the discipline including the ethics of digitization and of ancient DNA, to the globalization of a discipline that still is very scattered in terms of priorities and values which makes the establishment of a broader code of ethics challenging. In the face of this complex challenge, Geller encourages us to engage in a proactive ethical practice of our discipline and develop moral normative practices in our interactions with the dead and the living. Drawing on an understanding of practice theory, she underlines the importance of understanding that these practices participate in forming our epistemological frames and ontological positions. She also embraces the entangled character of the responsibilities and accountabilities in our way (with reference to Karen Barad). “A bioethos,” Geller writes “is only imaginable if we seek to consciously entangle—materiality and discourse, words and deeds, knowing and being and doing, science and humanities, fact and compassion.”

Read the review open access in full text here.

credit featured image: “old book’s” by v.max1978 is marked with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view the terms, visit

Exploring Sustainable Collection Practices. Report from a workshop.

On May 2-4, 2022, I participated in a workshop “Museums, sustainability, collections” at the Africa Museum / the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium. The workshop was organised within the European cooperation project “TAKING CARE – Ethnographic and World Cultures Museums as Spaces of Care” and included curators, conservators and other museum professionals from ethnographic museums from across Europe and Africa. A central focus of the TAKING CARE project is the climate crisis and the Anthropocene with a particular focus on entanglements with colonial histories and their reverberations in our contemporary world.

Glimpse of the workshop program. Photo: Liv Nilsson Stutz

The workshop included three keynotes that in different ways addressed sustainable collection practices. Chris Ssebuyungo (Conservator at Uganda National Museum) discussed the relationships between the museums and their publics from his experiences in Uganda. André Ntagwabira (Researcher in Archaeology at the Rwanda Heritage Academy) and Siska Genbrugge (Objects Conservator at the Royal Museum for Central Africa) explored challenges relating to collections care of African collections weighing conflicting interests such as accessibility, cost, environmental impact, and health risks relating to, for example, exposure to pesticides used in conservation practices. My talk on the care for human remains discussed the ethical entanglements of different collections with a range of power structures, including those of colonial histories, and explored alternatives for ethical care practices for these sensitive collections. The talks were all followed by extensive collaborative workshop discussions where participants shared their experiences and perspectives with these issues. It was clear that we are in a moment when museums across Europe are all grappling with the challenges of how to best deal with their history, their role as contemporary inclusive and safe spaces, and their role as agents for sustainable futures.

Freddy Tsimba “Centres fermés, rêves ouverts” Tervuren, 2016. Tsimba’s sculpture is made from materials recovered from the building site during the new constructions of the museum in 2016. The sculpture gives form to his experiences in a closed center in Belgium and is a tribute to refugees being interrogated across the world. Photo: Liv Nilsson Stutz

In the segment of the program devoted to discussing sensitive collections we discussed different strategies used by museums to tread the difficult balance between accessibility and respect – for example the ways in which searchable databases can include specific protection for sensitive materials, or only be accessible from within the museum by researchers, descending communities, and curators. Participants also discussed what ethical engagement might look like in the work with human remains – and one participant shared how many bioarchaeologists and biological anthropologists systematically talk to the human remains as they study them to maintain the connection to and acknowledge their humanity. The discussions also raised new questions emerged in relation to new museology techniques. As auditory elements become increasingly incorporated in museum exhibitions, we could for example ask ourselves whether the documented sound of a voice should be included in the category.

The TAKING CARE project involves museums with ethnographic collections, and this means that the focus of any ethical exploration will be rooted in a critical analysis of colonial research and collection practices. In this discussion human remains is only one of many categories of sensitive collections. But there is nevertheless significant overlap in the challenges we all face, and many of the ethical considerations are very similar. In 2013 The Royal Museum for Central Africa closed to accomplish a complete overhaul of its exhibitions. The ongoing work on provenance and restitution is currently central to the mission of the museum.

 Sculpture in openwood work by Aimé Mpane representing the Skull of Chief Lusinga which was taken by the Belgian officer Emile Storms as a trophy (the Chief was killed and beheaded) during a raid on the on the village of Lusinga in 1884. The cranium was part of the collections of the Royal museum for Central Africa until 1964, and was then passed on to the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences. The cranium has not been repatriated. Photo: Liv Nilsson Stutz

While the theme of human reamins was not central for this workshop, it is relevant when thinking about decolonisation and collections. Currently a large scale project called HOME (Human Remains Origin(s) Multidisciplinary Evaluation), to inventory all human remains collected abroad and currently located in museums, research institutions and private collections in Belgium has been initiated. The interdisciplinary project will identify “the individual people, the conditions under which their remains were collected and in some cases, will try to better understand past lifestyles, both from a cultural and biological point of view.”

“In Belgium, there are currently no guidelines for the conservation and management of human remains, nor a legal framework for the return of human remains to family members, institutions or countries of origin. “

Reinout Verbeke,

The project will also study Belgian and international legal frameworks for repatriation and restitution. Just like in, for example Sweden, “there are currently no guidelines for the conservation and management of human remains (in Belgium), nor a legal framework for the return of human remains to family members, institutions or countries of origin. A large inventory supplemented with archive material should help to identify more individual people and better understand the circumstances in which they were acquired.” This is in and of itself not unusual. What stands out in the case of Belgium however, is that up to today, Belgium has never repatriated any human remains to another state. This is perhaps especially striking given the well known colonial history of Belgium.

Human Remains in Contract Archaeology – report from a workshop

The Ethical Entanglements project mainly focuses on collections of human remains in museums, but a significant process by which they get there today is contract archaeology. In contrast to the scientific practices that resulted in many of the older collections in museums, including ethnographic, anatomical and archaeological collections, these new additions to archaeological collections are dominated by a practice driven primarily by development (such as the constructions of roads, schools and railway stations) – where archaeology is inserted as a measure to record and document cultural heritage before the destruction of these contexts for other purposes, rather than driven purely by scientific aims. To an extent this shifts the discussion. This means that it is not the scientific practice that is the root to the excavation and collection of these remains, but development. It also makes archaeology and collection into a protective practice, rather than an exploitative one. That being said, the ethical challenges remain the same, and the field, just like with the case of museum collections, lacks a clear regulation.

Participants in the workshop (from the left): Anna Tornberg, Caroline Ahlström Arcini, Lisa Hartzell, Liv Nilsson Stutz, Hayley Mickleburgh, Ina Thegen, Niels Lynnerup, and Clara Alfsdotter.

To explore these complex issues Ina Thegen, a guest researcher at at the Linnaeus University Center for Concurrences in Colonial and Postcolonial Studies, and a graduate student in Archaeology at the Department of Archaeology and Heritage Studies at Aarhus University, and I organised a workshop on the theme of Contract Archaeology, Human Remains, and Ethics in 2022, at Linnaeus University, April 8, 2022. The workshop was generously sponsored by LNUC Concurrences.

The workshop gathered experts and colleagues working with human remains from contract archaeology contexts in Sweden and Denmark. While presenting a broad view, the different perspectives all highlighted both a concern for ethical issues and an awareness of the importance of professional ethics, and a lack of clear structures, which results in a variation in practices and decision making.

Dr. Clara Alfsdotter, osteologist at Bohuslän County Museum presented the view from a regional museum in Sweden, and highlighted how, despite the existence of guidelines and recommendations, the interpretation of these very guidelines can vary and often depends on the single museum or, even individuals. These issues were discussed around two examples. In one case there were very different views within the museum whether it would be ethical to create an exhibition on the topic of syphilis in historic times using human remains in the mueusm collectons. The other example discussed how priorities in the field could favour the documentation of architecture over human remains. This example was especially problematic as it concerned a medieval monastery, where human remains can be expected.

Charina Knutsson, archaeologist at the museum Jamtli, and graduate student at the Linnaeus University Graduate School in Contract Archaeology (GRASCA) discussed the issue from the perspective of contract archaeology in Sápmi. Her previous research, published in her licentiate thesis Conducting Archaeology in Swedish Sápmi: Policies, Implementations and Challenges in a Postcolonial Context has demonstrated the lack of consultation with the Sámi communities in contract archaeology, and this disconnect potentially also affects how human remains are treated in the process. In her presentation she discussed that museums in the region all have policies regarding the handling of human remains, but there are no special recommendations for Sámi remains. The topic is current, but also still, to an extent sensitive.

Dr. Carline Ahlström Arcini, osteologist at the contract archaeology firm Arkeologerna opened her presentation with a moving account of how childhood visits to the paediatric ward at the hospital in Norrköping where her father worked as a physician, initially drew her to the field of osteology. This presentation reminded us of the importance of compassion as a key feature of a discipline that not only allows us to come face to face with an individual of the past, but also allows us to glimpse their lived experience, including pain and illness. Her presentation discussed how different stakeholders have different voices in the Swedish context, and that the Swedish church tends to be among the most critical, while the public ususally are mostly interested in the results. Who, we might ask, are the most important stakeholdes here?

Ina Thegen presents her paper on Danish contract archaeology.

A similar concern was raised by Ina Thegen, graduate student at Aarhus University, who placed these questions in the frame of her thesis that maps and problematises the connections between the legal frameworks, practices, and stakeholders in Danish contract archaeology. She too, points to the Church as a vocal stakeholder along with the media. But she also asked us to problematise if a stakeholder is less valid only because they do not represent the majority. She also discussed how human remains are categorised as movable objects and do not have a clear caretaker within Danish archaeology per se, but rather is under the purview of other disciplines (predominantly medicine), which may create a series of ethical challenges as they are not prioritised by the contract archaeology praxis.

Dr. Niels Lynnerup, head of the Forensic Department at the University of Copenhagen which holds the vast majority of human remains collected in Denmark by contract archaeology (the second depository is at the University of Southern Denmark / Odense), spoke on behalf of this other side of the Danish equation. From the perspective of a vast experience with a range of different contexts he underscored the importance of communication with all stakeholders as a fundamental step toward ethical practice – a theme that was echoed in the other presentations as well, thus highlighting a crucial arena for progressive and constructive work.

Discussion and exploration of concepts during the workshop.
All eyes on Niels Lynnerup – who is out of frame.

Dr. Anna Tornberg, osteologist at the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History at Lund University, discussed the ethical implications of the Third Science Revolution on research. Her presentation highlighted the importance of keeping an eye on how funding agency priorities and publication strategies impact the research process by imposing a top down perspective on human experience in the past. While these new methods offer a lot of possibilities, they also present new ethical challenges that we must consider.

The workshop was very dynamic and inspiring, as the different presentations offered complementary views on a very current and clear professional challenge. We left feeling that we have only started to explore these complexities and are looking forward to more exchanges of ideas and experiences in the near future.

Meeting at the Ethnographic Museum in Stockholm

Last week (January 26-27) the researchers with Ethical Entanglements met with the advisory board for the project, including Fredrik Svanberg (Nordiska museet, Stockholm), Linda Andersson Burnett (Uppsala University), Olof Ljungström (Karolinska Instititutet), Malin Masterton (Örebro University), and Kicki Eldh (The Swedish National Heritage Board). The meeting was held at the Ethnographic Museum in Stockholm. The project members presented their respective work packages to the board and received invaluable feedback from the board members who represent a range of experiences and expertise that in different ways will enrich the project with perspectives from the museum world and Museology, Medical Ethics, the History of Ideas and Knowledge, Postcolonial Studies, and more broadly from a critical engagement with Humanities and Social Science research and its history.

A lot of the discussions came to focus on the ways in which human remains are positioned on a sliding scale, between object and subject, between lived lives and specimens for sciences, and sometimes between evidence and victim – and how their positioning on the scale changes over time, between cultures and academic disciplines.

visit to the storage area of the Ethnographic Museum, photo: Liv Nilsson Stutz

After the meeting, Mia Broné, objects coordinator for the four National Museums of World Culture (Etnografiska museet, Medelhavsmuseet, Östasiatiska museet, och Världskulturmuseet), presented the work that these museums in different ways have worked intentionally with their collections of human remains, and the rich and complex history of the collections. We finished with a visit to the storage area where we continued to discuss practice and ethics of care.

Is Repatriation an Ideology? Reviews of “that book”, i.e. Weiss and Springer.

A few weeks ago, The European Journal of Archaeology published three book reviews of the same book. That may seem a bit unusual, but the book in question, Repatriation and Erasing the Past by Elisabeth Weiss (a professor of anthropology at San José State University) and James W. Springer (a retired attorney and anthropologist), can without exaggeration be called one of the most controversial academic publications in recent years. It is important to realize is that this book is not a traditional piece of academic writing characterized by curious exploration and scholarly pursuit of a complex topic. Instead, it is an explicitly argumentative text that centers on the position that repatriation is is harmful to research. By building a case against repatriation, the authors seek confrontation with other stakeholders, not dialogue.  The law that is scrutinized in the book is the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) that since it was signed into US federal law in 1990 has transformed archaeological and museum practices in the United States and their relationships with Native American communities, most would say, for the better. 

Given the impact of NAGPRA, and the ways in which it today is perceived as having had a positive transformative effect on research and museum practices, many archaeologists and biological anthropologists have felt the urge to go on the record about this book. I am one of them. The other two reviewers in this issue of EJA are Joe Watkins, archaeologist, member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, and senior consultant with Archaeological and Cultural Education Consultants, Tucson, Arizona, and Chip Colwell, archaeologist, former senior curator of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and founding Editor-in-chief of SAPIENS. Both their reviews are important and insightful and provide thoughtful and initiated critique.

“Nearly every sentence of Repatriation and Erasing the Past is strewn with mischaracterizations, inaccuracies, misleading assertions, false claims, or hyperbole.”

Colwell, 2021 review of Weiss and Springer, European Journal of Archaeology 24(4), p. 582

Colwell’s piece focuses on fact checking. In a scathing critique he argues that it is simply impossible to account for all the mistakes in the book. To illustrate his point, he selects a single page of the book – page 211, the first page of the volume’s conclusion, a choice he argues is “fair to the authors” since it sets out to summarize the central content and arguments of the book. His devastating scrutiny, that proceeds sentence by sentence of that one page, reveals a steady stream of mischaracterizations of NAGPRA and of academic sources and citations, misleading statements about the support of NAGRPA in the scientific community and its effect on research and collections. After noting that he is running out of words, he concludes: “Nearly every sentence of Repatriation and Erasing the Past is strewn with mischaracterizations, inaccuracies, misleading assertions, false claims, or hyperbole.”

Watkins starts his review with a very important personal anecdote: 

On December 18, 2020, the University of Florida Press sent a memorandum in an email to its publishing partners, including authors (such as I) who have published in the Press. The memo was an apology for ‘the pain this publication has caused. It was not our intent to publish a book that uses arguments and terminology associated with scientific racism’ (Gutierrez, 2020: 1). However, the Press noted that ‘to withdraw the publication at this point, as some have called for on social media and in other forums, is to attempt to hide it and to hope that simply retracting the book will cause the viewpoint to cease to exist.’”

Watkins, 2021 review of Weiss and Springer, European Journal of Archaeology 24(4), p. 571.

This anecdote is significant because it shows both how much debate this book immediately caused, but also – and this is especially important – the enigmatic position of the publisher. How come, I wonder, did an academic publisher not understand that this book was going to be problematic? The book has already been the subject of intense criticism (see for example Halcrow et al 2021; Kakaliouras 2021; Sassaman 2021; ), and calls have been made to cancel the authors, in particular when they have appeared at academic conferences, which in turn has spurred responses from the authors. While it can be argued that everybody has the right to their opinion, it does not automatically follow that they also are entitled to a book contract. So what did University of Florida Press really think would happen?

While I continue to wonder about the decision to publish this book, I still feel that it is more important to take on the issues it presents in open debate to demonstrate the flaws of their argument, rather than to silence its authors. This is especially important as I see this publication as part of a larger context of a reactionary backlash against progressive critical work in academia today, including postcolonial theory, critical race theory, and gender and sexuality studies, all under fire from conservative politicians and debaters across Europe and the US (see for example the development in the US, Denmark, Poland and Hungary). We note how the argument of protecting “academic quality” often is used to squash intellectual critical theory that challenges conservative political ideologies, and the same reasoning can be found in the book by Weiss and Springer where they systematically characterize repatriation as “an ideology.” In this sense, the book about repatriation in the US can be understood as a party in a much broader cultural war within and outside of the academy today. 

“Corridors of knowledge” by is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In my review, which can be read in its entirety in the journal, I advance three critiques against the case mounted by the authors.

My first critique centres on the lack of reflexivity and power analysis, including a lack of recognition of the colonial history and the contemporary relationships between Native Americans and the academy. Today this must be viewed as extremely problematic coming from two anthropologists. The lack of awareness is revealed in a number of ways, including inflammatory statements, a lack of awareness in the use of nicknames given to archaeological finds, and in the unproblematized use of terms like “race,” and even in the uncommented use of photos from colonial contexts.

A second and related problem is the lack of respect for Native American culture. This attitude permeates the book and is communicated through the casual and systematic dismissal of positions about myths, traditional knowledge, Native American cosmology, and so on. The authors argue that science is more objective and rational, and this position can be defended (especially from their own position as radically anti-post- modern). But when they proceed to deduce that a scientific understanding of the world, including of Native American history, is more valuable for humanity, they introduce a judgement that must be tried on its own terms, but they do not explore this issue, probably because they never questioned it. 

These two first foundational principles, imperfect as they are, constitute the foundation for the main thesis of the book: that repatriation is an ideology of victimization—born out of elitist postmodernism—and opposed to the ‘good’ represented in the value of the study of human remains. They argue that this ideology is ‘a modern, political construct and not a genuine reflection of historical Native American cultural beliefs.’ To support this argument they refer to the fact that also Native Americans at times handled human remains, in particular those of their enemies. Why this is relevant for the current debate is not explored or contextualized. The argument that repatriation is an ideology is repeated throughout the book, but never actually intellectually explored or supported.

…just because something affects how you do things, or places responsibilities and boundaries on your actions, does not automatically give you the right to delegitimize it by calling it “ideological.”

But can it really be argued that repatriation is “an ideology”? An ideology can be defined as a set of opinions and ideas held by a group of people. But repatriation is not an idea, it is a practice that is regulated by law and the product of years of negotiation between stakeholders. This practice has affected archaeology, anthropology and museum practices. But just because something affects how you do things, or places responsibilities and boundaries on your actions, does not automatically give you the right to delegitimize it by calling it “ideological.” As research ethics have become more central to our professional practice, there are many practies and protocols that have been regulated, abandoned, and even condemned. In his review of the book Joe Watkins refers to the Nazi medical experiments and to the Tuskegee Study as examples of research practices that we, even though they may contain valuable information, no longer can use – for obvious ethical reasons. The study of human remains obtained through theft and structural, political, and physical violence, must be seen in the same way. What is perhaps the most striking conclusion after reading this book is that the authors simply do not understand that as a researcher you do not automatically have an uncontested right to any materials you find interesting to study. 

Repatriation can and should be discussed, problematized, and interrogated, but if the goal is to ask interesting questions about knowledge production, research ethics, decision making and long-term consequences, then the way forward must be paved with mutual respect and interest. I am grateful that the conversations and debates about repatriation, and the practice and experience of engagement have built a solid enough foundation for these debates to go on, assuring – I hope – that this book will be just a small bump in the road forward. However, in this political moment, it is important that so many archaeologists and anthropologists have spoken out in critical terms about this book to not allow it to define our disciplines. The battles for democracy and ethics are never won. The frontiers must constantly be guarded and maintained. 

Featured image: “Old Books” by ShellyS is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit

Thanks, But No Thanks? The challenge of spontaneous donations of human remains to museums.

In recent conversations with the Swedish museum community, I have been made aware of the challenges they face as people, who for various reasons are in possession of human remains, approach them to make a donation. This may sound odd, but it is quite common, and this probably marks a shift in the culture regarding our attitudes to human remains and the ethics that surround them. And it presents museums, as institutions trusted to “take care of things,” with a difficult conundrum.

Most of these spontaneous donations are offered by family members of deceased physicians and dentists. In the past, it was quite common for medical students to acquire anatomical specimen as part of their professional training. Having a cranium at home probably initially helped you to learn some anatomy, but it is likely that the possession soon transitioned from pedagogical tool to professional symbolic marker. Studies have shown that the engagement with the human corpse, especially in the form of the practice of dissection, functioned as a rite of passage in medical schools in the past – and still to some degree can be argued to play that role. Through the completion of dissection the medical student becomes marked off as different, as part of a groups of specialists for whom engagement with cadavers is normal. This would have played a central role in professional identity production, and memorial photographs from medical schools indicate that this was also a performance which underscored the distinction from “civilians.” Here, the shock factor, played a part in marking the identity. The keeping of human remains, most commonly skulls, but also other specimen, in the office or even at home, can probably be viewed as part of the same professional identity performance. 

American Medical Student dissection group photograph. The students are posing with the cadaver on a table signed with the name of the school and the year of their class – a common practice to commemorate the event. Photo from Discover Magazine (link above).

But times change – both outside of and in the medical profession. Dissection has become a place where medical ethics are taught, and it is no longer considered unproblematic to keep human remains around the house. Consequently, as older members of the profession die, the skulls kept on shelves start to become an issue to be solved by the survivors. 

Another source for these remains is teaching institutions, like public schools, that historically would have a teaching skeleton in their pedagogical arsenal, and perhaps also as a symbol of science more generally (since advanced anatomy never was a core component of the curriculum for most students, although exceptions exist). A debate has emerged in the last few years also in the pedagogical community. Although an underresearched area, anecdotal evidence shows that cases of unethical practice can aslo be linked to these collections (like the case of a school skeleton in Strömsnäsbruk sourced from a marginalised local man who committed suicide in 1847). As the school system is being reformed, and schools reorganize and move to new or refurbished buildings, the old skeletons emerge as left overs from the past that need to be handled. With the change in the social and cultural debate they are no longer viewed as unproblematic, and perhaps their usefulness is also being questioned. Schools too are looking for ways to ethically dispose of or rid themselves of these bones. In some cases, like one in Strömsnäsbruk (and others), burial of the remains remind us of similar burials in cases of repatriation to indigenous peoples.

Some of the remains were obtained through not only legal, but culturally sanctioned and celebrated practices at the time, while others were obtained through theft and other dubious or criminal practices. It is important to remember that while widows of dentists and physicians are trying to do right by the remains in their homes, human remains are still being traded today and how illegal that is depends on their provenience. The field is still shifting. 

In a seminar held with museum representatives on Nov 12, 2022 and organised by the Nordic Network for Human Remains in Museums, different experiences were discussed. From the discussion it became clear that museums tend to avoid accessioning problematic human remains. Most of the museums have a policy based on perceived responsibility. For example, if the museum or institution can be connected to a university that provided the medical training of the person holding the remains, or if the remains to be returned has some other connection to the collections already held by the museum, then there is a certain responsibility to receive the remains. The responsibility is not only about personal ethics and postmortem dignity but can also be linked to the professional ethics of documenting the historical practices of collecting and using human remains. It is important to underscore that this is also a consideration that should not be neglected. Other museums only accept archaeological remains.

But when museums do not accept the spontaneous donations of human remains – what happens to them? Who takes responsibility? 

The Swedish Church, The County Boards, the Police, and the Swedish National Heritage Board can also be considered stakeholders with different responsibilities. But so can all the municipalities that are formally responsible for the school system in Sweden today, and even the Swedish National Agency for Education. Bottom line, it is often unclear for an individual or an organisation, like a school, seeking guidance on how to properly dispose of human remains where to turn if the museum turns them down. 

Most commonly people are referred to the Swedish Church that has routines for destruction, but it is still a bit unclear how to proceed since the organization is decentralized when it comes to burial rights and practice. 

What I find fascinating in this discussion is that it so clearly illustrates that a new ethical dilemma has emerged as our social and cultural attitudes to human remains have changed.

What I find fascinating in this discussion is that it so clearly illustrates that a new ethical dilemma has emerged as our social and cultural attitudes to human remains have changed. This is a problem that did not exist in the public mind only a few decades ago. The issue spans many different professional and scientific spheres, from archaeology, to medicine, to forensics and to pedagogy. As it is no longer considered unproblematic to keep human remains in homes, offices, and school classrooms, we are all grappling with how to handle them. Should they be buried, destroyed, or preserved for teaching and research? How do we proceed?

A first step would be to clarify who in the long chain of stakeholders has the responsibility not to curate or dispose of, but to research the history and provenience of these remains. This is a first necessary step to even know what an ethical next step would be. But this is costly. It is not reasonable to lay the burden on individual museums that have no formal, historical connection to the remains, which is probably the reason why they are not willing and able to accept these donations. At the same time, it is not reasonable to lay this burden on the relatives of the collector, especially not if they explicitly want to pass them on for ethical reasons. 

We have work to do.