In The Grey Areas Between Practice, Law, and Ethics. Update on the MOVE Remains at U Penn.

On August 20, 2021, The Tucker Law Group published its independent report The Odyssey of the MOVE Remains on the handling of the human remains recovered from the MOVE bombing site in 1985 that eventually resurfaced in an online anthropology course at Princeton decades later and caused outrage and protest in the spring of 2021 (for more on the background and recent developments please read this previous post). Five days later the Penn Museum published the key findings on its webpage under the heading Towards a Respectful Resolution. The report can be read to assess blame and responsibility, but I find it even more interesting as a documentation of the complex, unregulated, and muddled grey areas of professional (and sometimes unreflected) practice, law, and ethics that sometimes occur in the handling of human remains in museums and research.

The report establishes that the human remains ended up in the Penn Museum in 1986 after anthropologist Dr Alan Mann was contacted, as a private consultant, by the Medical Examiners Office in Philadelphia to help settle a difference of opinion concerning the estimated age of the fragmented remains of two individuals, one named B-1 and the other Body G. The efforts of identification were inconclusive, especially regarding B-1. Three of the experts who had studied the bones estimated the age to be 14, which was the age of Katricia Africa at the time of the bombing, while others, including Mann, his then graduate student Janet Monge, and the Medical Examiner, concluded that the remains were those of an older individual, and therefore could not be attributed to Katricia Africa. There was also some debate over the age estimation of Body G, but in the end it was attributed to Delisha Africa aged 12 at the time of her death, and the remains were released to her family for burial in September 1986. The remains of B-1, were considered by Mann and Monge to be unidentified and were therefore never returned to the MOVE community. Instead they came to be curated as a semi-private possession in the heart of a museum.

Osage Avenue in Philadephia, the site of the MOVE bombing in 1985. Photo credit banner: “Community dedicates plaque of MOVE bombing” by joepiette2 is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/

After the first examination in 1986, no further tests were carried out by Mann on individual B-1. The remains were left in storage in his office until 2001 when he moved to a new position at Princeton. This is an interesting detail. It is important to note that the remains never were added to the museum collections – but remained in the office space of Dr Mann. To understand this we must remember that the remains came to him in the capacity of private consultant, not museum curator. This is a key piece of information, because it shows that the museum never formally acquired these remains, even if they existed on its premises. This may explain why their exact location was unknown by the Penn Museum Spokesperson in April 2021 who, at the time suggested that they may have been transferred to Princeton. This turned out to be incorrect. In 2001 the remains were transfered from Mann’s office to a file cabinet in Dr. Monge’s office, now the Curator-in-Charge of the Physical Anthropology section at the Penn Museum. In 2014 they were stored in Monge’s lab at the museum.

The relationship between the remains, and the museum, curators, and university, remains remarkably undefined in the following years. The fragments were stored in the offices and lab of the curators, which were located in the museum, but they were never officially accessioned to the museum collections. However, while not formally part of the museum collections, they were, in fact, often treated as if they were. They were occasionally displayed (albeit never as a part of the public museum exhibitions), and used for teaching purposes. In the decades that followed Mann’s departure from Penn, the remains were displayed by Monge “on ten separate occasions,” and notably in 2015 during a meeting of Museum donors. Monge also occasionally showed the remains to colleagues to get their opinion about the age estimation. This indicates that she might have been unsure about her and Mann’s original assessment, or at least wanted additional confirmation. The remains were also used to train students (including in the now infamous Princeton Coursera video, but also in student research projects, and examinations). In 1998, for example, they were included in a diplomate exam for the Society of Forensic Anthropologists where the takers of the exam were asked to estimate the age of the remains. In 2018-19 a student under the supervision of Dr Monge, wrote a senior paper on the MOVE remains, a study that included x-rays of the bones. The paper is focused on B-1, but also includes references and an x-ray of what the student at the time of writing the paper identifies as the occipital bone of Body G (i.e. Delisha Africa), remains that allegedly would have been returned to the family and buried in 1986. It is unclear whether or not this identification is correct, but, of course that kind of lack of clarity is in itself troubling. The report outlines issues in the handling of the human remains including the lack of systematic labelling, and even accounts of a student taking remains home with him. This might explain why there might be some confusion about the identity of some bone fragments in the labs.

On two occasions, in 1995 and in 2014, attempts were made on behalf of Monge to communicate with members of the MOVE group “to enlist their help in identifying the remains and, if they did belong to Katricia, return them to her mother, Consuewella Africa.” These efforts were unsuccessful. According to the report, the family members refused to assist her. It was only after the story about the use of these remains in an online course broke in Billypenn on April 21, 2021 that the remains were relocated and transferred to a West Philadelphia funeral home. According to the report, the Deputy Director of the Museum, Dr. Stephen Tinney, instructed Monge to hand over the remains to Mann, who in turn, at the request of the University, handed them over to a funeral director. The remains were picked up in a hearse from Mann’s home on April 30th, 2021. This performance of transfer of ownership was no doubt arranged by the museum to clearly signal that it never had formal custody of the remains, and that the responsibility of receiving them must be shouldered by Mann. The remains were finally returned to the Africa family on July 2, 2021.

The handling of the remains in this case reveals interesting insights into the grey areas that sometimes still loom over research and museum practices when it comes to human remains.

The handling of the remains in this case revelas interesting insights into the grey areas that sometimes still loom over research and museum practices when it comes to human remains, and the close examination of this case revelas significant contradictions between practice, policy and decision making.

The remains were never accessioned to the museum, which means that they were never the museum’s responsibility to validate, catalogue, store, and make available to research and the public. According to the report this never happened because according to Mann and Monge, the goal ultimately was to return them to the Africa family. This is puzzling to me for two reasons. First it is unclear why the museum would want to accept such a problematic donation in the first place, and second, because the reason they initially were withheld was because the Medical Examiner, Mann, and Monge concluded that the remains could not be attributed to Katricia Africa because of their age estimation. While the museum never formally accepted the bones, they remained within its walls. In the report it is stated that the curators felt OK with this because they were stored in safe conditions. Yet, the report points out, that the curators seem to not have had complete control of what happened to the bones. Mann is quoted saying: “I do not specifically recall, apart from the re-examining the bone fragments, what we did with the fragments after we secured them at the Penn Museum.” Had the bones been subject to a clear process of accession, they may in fact have recieved better protection. In 2017 the museum drafted a policy “addressing the use and display of the accessioned human remains in the Museum’s collection”. However, these guidelines to not concern unaccessioned remains like those of B-1, a category that according to the former Director of the Penn Museum, Julian Siggers, may be quite common in University museums across the US.

What we have here is an interesting unregulated grey area. Both the current and previous directors of the Museum were aware of the presence of the MOVE bones, but did not think that their presence or use violated any museum policies. In fact, because they were never accessioned, they did not fall under the guidelines of the Institute of Museum Ethics on the treatment of human remains or the American Alliance of Museum’s Code of Ethics section on Collections. When reviewing case law and statutes concerning liability for the mishandling of human remains, the report also concludes that the case falls through the legal cracks, “because statutes or holding by their terms the requisite states of mind required for liability were not present, or the statutes of limitations had run on any potential claims.” The case is further complicated by the fact that as long as the bones remain unidentified, it is difficult to identify the proper claimant. In the end, what we are left with are ethical professional guidelines.

In the end the report states that it is not possible to conclude that the actions taken by Mann and Monge were “unethical as such.” It reprimands them for their “cavalier” treatment of the remains and for displaying “extremely poor judgment and gross insensitivity to the moral, social, and political implications of their conduct.” Their actions were, the report states “inconsistent with the implied overarching principle of the respectful treatment of human remains.” But they never broke the law.

While not illegal – and formally not unethical – the whole ordeal is upsetting. It clearly illustrates the vast grey areas that still exist in the field of research ethics when it comes to human remains. As researchers and institutions become increasingly aware of their ethical responsibilities, the field will need better practices and guidelines to prevent this kind of behaviour in the future. In the end, it does not only hurt stakeholders, it damages the reputation of biological anthropology and undermines our credibility as researchers.

Image credit banner: “Figures of Justice” by Clearly Ambiguous is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Real Bones. The Scandalous Case of the Remains of Katricia Africa.

Last week Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania both released apologies for their “insensitive, unprofessional and unacceptable” treatment of the bones belonging to an unidentified African American child who had perished in the flames of the MOVE bombing in Philadelphia in 1985. The apology refers to the use of charred remains of the child’s pelvis and femora in an online anthropology course entitled Real Bones: Adventures in Forensic Anthropology offered by Princeton University. The story was reported in an article in Billypenn, and also discussed in a Philadelphia Inquirer Op-ed, both published on April 21, 2021. The apology came only weeks after the release of a report that outlines a shift in the policy at the Penn Museum to repatriate African American remains from the infamous Morton collection. While the ethical challenges of the Morton collection (which was built and used to support a polygenist racist ideology) was well known, the debate about it reached a tipping point in the summer of 2020, as the world was protesting structural racism and the police violence that had killed George Floyd. The new direction taken by the museum signalled a desire to build better relationships with the local African American community and make amends for its problematic heritage. In the light of these progressive steps, the story about the bones from the MOVE bombings was shocking, and it seems to indicate just how much work the scientific community still has left to do.

“Community dedicates plaque of MOVE bombing” by joepiette2 is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/

In the 1980s, The Philadelphia Police Department was engaged in a lingering conflict with the revolutionary black military separatist group MOVE, who lived in a communal row house on Osage Ave in West Philadelphia. On May 13th, 1985, a final and violent standoff ended with the police dropping a bomb on the house. 11 people died in the ensuing fire. Five of them were children. The Philadelphia Fire Department deliberately held back their response, and as a consequence the fire spread to engulf two city blocks, and over 60 homes were completely destroyed. Pictures from the blast reveal what looks like a war zone, and the attack has left a deep wound in Philadelphia’s African American community. In 2021, 36 years later, bones recovered from the MOVE house, and suspected to be those of 14 year old Katricia “Tree” Africa, resurface in an online anthropology class at Princeton. How is that possible?

When examining the chain of custody of the remains, several things stand out as problematic. The bones arrived to Penn already in 1985 when the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office asked anthropologists there to assist in their identification. The Medical Examiner’s Office wanted to know if the bones, recovered from the burned out MOVE house, could be the remains of Katricia Africa. The analysis was inconclusive. So far so good. It is common to seek out specialists for analysis, and it can be viewed as a service to the community at large. It is also to be expected that some specialist analyses are inconclusive. It is what happens next, or rather what does not happen, that is strange. The remains were never returned to the Medical Examiner’s Office once the analysis was terminated, but remained in the museum. Museums are often custodians of human remains from archaeological and historical contexts, some of them admittedly controversial or problematic. This is a well known and complex issue. Museums have a responsibility to curate and make these collections available for researchers and to the public, and many of them are currently grappling with the ethical considerations this responsibility entails. However, it is very unusual that contemporary specimens are incorporated into such collections, and certainly not without the explicit consent of the donor or their descendants. It is not the museums’ responsibility to accept to curate remains from local law enforcement, and usually, unidentified remains are cremated. Is it possible that the bones from the MOVE house were simply forgotten? Did they get lost in the chain of custody? Is this a case of neglect and poor procedure? Beyond questions of responsibility and professionalism, we must also ask how is it possible that the remains were not viewed as deeply problematic at the time? Even if it may have been difficult to locate surviving relatives, it is especially hard to understand how the anthropologists working in a museum in a city recovering from such a traumatic event did not make the connection between the remains and the needs of the community. That is troubling.

Then, somewhere along the way, things get even more complicated: the location of the bones becomes unclear. In her article in Billypenn, Maya Kassutto writes:

For decades, the bones were kept at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. A Penn Museum spokesperson said the remains have since been transferred to the care of researchers at Princeton — but an administrator at the New Jersey university was uncertain of their whereabouts. After this story published, a spokesperson said Princeton does not have them.

Could it be that a researcher simply took the remains from one place of employment to another? Here, it is difficult to shake the feeling that these practices are not very different from those of anthropologists in the 19th century who viewed scientific collections as their private property.

Kassutto continues:

“Princeton Anthropology Department Chair Carolyn Rouse wasn’t sure of the remains’ current location. Reached by phone, she said they might be in a lab run by Alan Mann, the now-retired professor who had been studying them with Janet Monge, curator of Penn Museum’s physical anthropology section.”

A lot has happened in the 36 years that have passed. Ethical standards, recommendations, and experiences with different perspectives have pushed anthropology to examine itself and develop more ethical practices and attitudes. Seen in that light, it is even more surprising that the remains of this unidentified child, violently killed by the police in Philadelphia in 1985, could be used in an online course that, according to its description, explicitly focuses on lost personhood (cases where remains cannot be identified due to their condition). What is so striking about this is the combination of a choice of words such as personhood, which signals an awareness of contemporary anthropological research questions and sensibilities, with such a casual neglect for the lived life of the human being that is represented by those very remains. It is difficult to imagine a case that more clearly, not only objectifies, but even dehumanises the remains of a child.

Ruth Benedict famously stated: “The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human difference.” With those words in mind, it is discouraging to realise that anthropology still so often remains incapable of reforming itself from within and leading the charge against racism and structural violence, but instead only reacts to external pressure when the public lifts up the curtain to expose our dirty laundry. This must prompt us to take action and examine our practices and ethics at every juncture. It is not certain that the discipline will survive many more of these omissions, missteps and scandals.

You see, the thing about real bones is that they once were living people. If we want to continue to have the privilege of studying them, we must learn to respect them and those who care about them.

Photo credit banner: “Community dedicates plaque of MOVE bombing” by joepiette2 is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/

“We are the heart, you are the brain”. Report from a seminar on repatriation to indigenous communities

On April 28, 2021, Professor Helene Martinsson Wallin (Uppsala University) and Dr. Olaug Andreassen (National Museum of Oslo) organised a webinar on the topic of repatriation of human remains to indigenous communities.

While the main focus of the seminar was on Rapa Nui, the heritage of Nordic colonialism was present as an important backdrop to the discussion, a reminder to Swedish scholars working with repatriation that there is no “Nordic exceptionalism” when it comes to colonial history, and the Nordic countries were a part of these global processses in all their various forms. Ulrika Persson-Fischier (Uppsala University) used her study of the crania collected by Nordenskiöld’s Vega Expedition to discuss the challenges of working with old colonial records when trying to establish “provenience.” She pointed out the paradox that despite good intentions, we risk reproducing colonial ideologies through the practice of repatriation if we use old records and categorisations. Mikael Jacobsson from the Lycksele Museum of Forestry shared his experiences of the repatriation and reburial of crania collected in from an old cemetery in Sápmi in the 1950s and returned for reburial in 2019. He showed moving images of the ceremony and discussed the difficulty in getting museums to really understand that human remains are not just archaeological and historical artefacts. Finally, the agreement to repatriate thousands of objects and human remains from the Kon Tiki Museum in Oslo, collected by Thor Heyerdahl and his team during his travels in the Pacific in the 1950s and 1980s, provided an immediate connection to the main focus of the webinar – the experiences of the repatriation of human remains to Rapa Nui.

A View of the Monuments of Easter Island, Rapanui, c. 1775-1776 by William Hodges.
Public Domain

Rapa Nui constitutes an interesting example to discuss repatriation. It is caught in complex layers of colonialism and relationships to the state of Chile. Known more widely by the name “Easter Island,” a name given by the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeween who accidentally “discovered” the island on Easter Sunday in 1722, the island is wrapped up in colonial history. In the decades that followed Roggeween’s short visit, several other expeditions landed on its shores, marking the beginning of a deep and painful colonial history including disease, structural violence, black birding, slave trade, and exploitation. The island was annexed to Chile in 1888. It holds the status of special territory since 2007, but the relationship to the Chilean state has not been without conflict.

From a cultural heritage point of view Rapa Nui is renowned for its monumental Moai, the sculptural heads that line its shores as “the living faces of deified ancestors.” But beyond these striking sculptures, the island is the home of an impressive cultural and archaeological heritage of monumental architecture, petroglyphs, and wood carvings that all can be traced back to the indigenous Rapa Nui. Given its painful history with colonialism, it is not surprising that calls for repatriation of both cultural objects and human remains play an important role in current debates, with the most highlighted example being the call to repatriate the Moai called Hoa Hakananai (lost or stolen friend) from the British Museum. In the process Chile has become a powerful player. Under Chilean law, the Moai are not regarded simply as art or artefacts, but deemed an “integral part of the land”, and in 2017 the control over them, along with other archaeological sites, was symbolically handed over, from the Chilean National Forest Corporation to the Rapa Nui by President Michelle Bachelet.

At the webinar, we would hear several voices engaged in the movement for the recognition of the right of Rapa Nui to gain control of their heritage including the human remains of their ancestors deposited in museums all over the world. Biological Anthropologist Associate Professor Felipe Martinez (Pontifica Universidad de Católica de Chile) discussed the importance of viewing human remains, not only as biological specimens but also as a part of cultural heritage, and stressed the need for a developed legal framework that recognises the rights of indigenous people in this context. Dr Jacinta Arthur (Pontificia Universidad de Católica de Chile), who has worked as the coordinator for the repatriation program in Rapa Nui, introduced the concept of patrimonialization of indigenous culture to the discussion, and discussed how legal instruments can protect cultural heritage for the nation without considering the needs of the indigenous communities to which it belongs.

This becomes especially interesting when unpacking the complexities of international repatriations of indigenous human remains and heritage. Who does this belong to? To where should it be repatriated? Who decides on the future of these remains? Here the relationship between the descending community, be it a majority population, a minority population, or an indigenous population, becomes central. As nation states come to agreements, the opportunities for descending communities may look very different depending on their relationship to the nation state that may or may not recognise their right to control their cultural heritage. Here the issues raised by both Dr Jacinta Arthur and Ulrika Persson-Fishcier (albeit in a different context) come back into focus.

“We are the heart, you are the brain”

These issues are without a doubt complex and difficult. What is the way forward? Curator Sr. Mario Tuki (Museo Antropologico Padre Sebastian Englert MAPSE Rapa Nui Repatriation Program Ka Haka Hoki Mai te Mana Tupuna and Hare Tapu Tu’u Ivi) offered a pathway. In his presentation and in the discussion, he stressed not only the importance of collaboration between scientists and indigenous communities, but also the importance of academic actors to recognise the emotional dimension of the process. Indigenous communities, with a lived experience of trauma from a violent colonial history, will bring a consideration for this emotional dimension. This should not be seen as a complication, but as an asset in the work toward mutual learning and understanding. Academics, on the other hand, will bring a problematizing and intellectual approach to the situation. We need both. “We are the heart, you are the brain,” he declared, proposing a wonderful metaphor for all of us who are seeking a productive way forward. Recognising that both the heart and the brain are vital organs, and that they sustain each other, Mario Tuki’s words leave me inspired and humbled.

image credit banner: Tukuturi, Brocken Inaglory, CC BY-SA3.0

Reaching The Tipping Point – the repatriation of the Morton collection from the Penn Museum

On April 12, 2021, The Morton Collection Committee released a report on their work of examining the ongoing issues relating to the anatomical collection created by Samuel George Morton (1799-1851), physician, natural scientist, renowned polygenist, and originator of the American School of Anthropology. Morton built a collection of 900 crania to provide “hard evidence” for the superiority of the white race, primarily by measuring the volume of the crania, linking the size of the brain to intellectual ability. The work was published in a series of volumes of which Crania Americana (1839), and Crania Aegyptica (1844) are the most well known. Both are renowned for their detailed drawings of the crania (see below), and both publications used the collection to demonstrate the alleged superiority of the “Caucasian race.” The collection is deposited at the Penn Museum since 1966, and it is now time, the report states, to take responsibility for this collection including developing a process for the repatriation of remains to descending communities.

Morton’s studies have been critically discussed by Stephen J. Gould who argued that they were plagued by implicit bias. This study, and Morton’s implicit bias in general have subsequently been discussed by J. E. Lewis et al., Michael Weisberg and Diane B. Paul, and Paul Wolff Mitchell , and while there is scholarly disagreement on the level of “fudging” in the study, there is a general consensus that Morton’s work was underpinned by the racist doctrine of polygenism, and that his ultimate conclusions as well as his casual remarks throughout the texts were openly racist. His work must also be understood in a context in which it provided scientific evidence that supported the American colonial effort, including attempts to eradicate and marginalise the Native Americans, and the economic system relying on both the transatlantic slave trade and on the labour of enslaved people.

Engraving of an Araucanian skull from Crania Americana by Samuel Morton, John Collins (engraver}, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Like so many other anatomical collections, the Morton collection has a complex history. Morton initially collected 900 crania, and after his death in 1851, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia bought and expanded the collection to ca 1.300 specimens. It was moved to the Penn Museum in 1966. We are familiar with similar transitions of historic collections from medical faculties to history museums (e.g. the anatomical collection transfered to the Lund University Historical Museum in 1995, and collections transferred to Gustavianum in Uppsala in 2009 and 2011, etc). When they are transfered to these museums – they are, in many ways, already a part of our history, being the cultural artefacts of a dark heritage of science. However, the fact that these collections are historical does not automatically neutralise them, and they remain both valuable and problematic. Since 2002 the Morton collection has been extensively scanned (over 17.500 CT scans have been distributed to researchers across the world), and the collection has continued to be used for research (source: PennMuseum/The Morton Cranial Collection).

While the collection had been known and debated as problematic for a long time, it appears that the situation came to a tipping point in the summer of 2020. In the report, the Morton Collection Committee clearly states that it was the events following the police killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 and the continuously growing influence of the Black Lives Matter movement and renewed calls for racial justice that prompted the institution to critically examine its history and reevaluate its relationship to the Morton collection.

In the US context, and for researchers who are familiar with the impact of the the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act on archaeological collections there since 1990, it seems almost strange that it took this long for the museum to “reassess its practices of collecting, storing, displaying, and researching human remains” and to provide “a visitation location for human remains that provides a quiet, contemplative space for reconnections and consultation visits in its future plans for rehousing the collections.” But this also demonstrates to what extent our practices are shaped by existing guidelines and legal frameworks, and how remains that are not explicitly subject to these have been able to remain more or less unaffected by the developments in other areas of museum practices with regards to human remains. However, it is also clear that the experience from engaging with NAGPRA over the past 30 years has been valuable as the museum develops practices to handle the current situation. It will be interesting to follow this development as a case study for how human remains in these complex and problematic anatomical collections may be curated and returned in the future.

As this work progresses, we must also remain engaged in continuing to examine how the engagement with these collections is shaped by current events, and assure that remains that are not illuminated by the limelight of current political debates are not forgotten. In addition, we should also ask to what extent new technology, like CT scanning, provides new solutions to old problems, or perhaps creates new problems and new ethical frontiers to examine.

Thoughts about Pharaohs’ Golden Parade

On April 3, 2021 a spectacular event took place. A parade of 18 kings and 4 queens – all mummies, were paraded through the streets of Cairo, from the Egyptian Museum to the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilization. There they all were, Ramses II, Hatshepsut, Amenhoteph the Magnificent, and others, transported in the order of their reign, on newly paved streets, in nitrogen filled coffins, and surrounded by a motorcade of security. The specially designed chariots, golden beasts, like a cross between a military vehicle and a boat and decorated with architectural shapes and Egyptian patterns, floated along the streets, one for each ruler, with their name clearly marked in Roman script, Arabic, and hieroglyphs, on the front, on the back and on the sides. The live streamed event also included performances by the United Philharmonic Orchestra, highly staged and produced parades by people in spectacular costumes, chants in ancient Egyptian language, readings form old inscriptions and from the Book of the Dead, and videos streamed of famous actors visiting important and restored Egyptian archaeological sites. At their final destination, the mummies were welcomed by president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and a gun salute by the National Guard.

Theses mummies have all traveled before. They all come from two locations:  The Royal Cache in Deir El Bahari and The Tomb of Amenhotep II in Luxor, where they were excavated in 1881 and 1898, respectively. Back in the day they reached Cairo by boat on the Nile and in some cases by first class train. Since then they have been on display for both Egyptians and tourists to see. Now they will take up court in the newly built Royal Hall of Mummies which opens for visitors on April 18.

The display of mummies is not uncontroversial in Egypt. While it is one of the few categories of human remains that are regularly on display in the United States where otherwise such exhibits are considered controversial (see article by Liv Nilsson Stutz in Archaeologists and the Dead), many muslim scholars argue that the dead should be treated with dignity and not be put on display. In 1980 the president Anwar Sadat ordered that the the royal mummies should be reburied. Allegedly the position grew out of a dispute he had with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Sadat criticized Khomieni for displaying the bodies of dead American servicemen on TV to which Khomeini retorted with questioning why Egypt displays mummies. Sadat did not get his wish, and the mummies remained in the care of the museum.

In this light – bringing together history, geopolitics, and religion, it is interesting to reflect over what the Pharaohs’ Golden Parade really means today. It is hard to miss the message of nationalism connecting the prestigeous past with the contemporary state, its president and military. It goes without saying that this is problematic. It is also likely that the live streaming and publicity surrounding this elaborate and costly event is an investment in the future tourist revenue streams which will be crucial for the economic post-covid recovery. The bread and circus aspect of the event is also hard to miss, and we are right to call it out. Finally, International media has taken the bite and in an expected and orientalist way brought to the fore “the curse of the mummies angle” as the days leading up to the event coincided with the stranding of an enormous ship in the Suez Canal.

But beyond all that we can see something else in the treatment of the royal mummies. The parade demonstrates how these human remains are treated, not only as invaluable antiquites, but also as the remains of important people, as individual named rulers with a public history, and personal dignity. We can reflect on what it says about us as we marvel and snicker at a performance like this, while we at the same time mine the graves of European royalty to extract DNA and other organic samples.

Dead Bodies are Not Neutral Objects. Report from a conversation about dead bodies and their place in museums.


The old photograph shows a mother, looking straight at us, with a child in her lap. The small face of the child is turned upward and the mouth is sightly open, embodying that deep and completely relaxed baby sleep every parent learns to recognise as the body of the child suddenly becomes very heavy your arms. Only, this child is not sleeping. This child is dead. Photographs like this, a last memento of the child before burial, were common in the 19th century and are still made today (although today the practice of taking and showing these photos is no longer as public, nor is it as socially acceptable). Photographs like this remind us that dead bodies are not neutral objects, and that separating from them can be emotional, painful and problematic. Photographs like this also remind us of how our attitudes to the dead are culturally shaped and experienced. Photographs like this can help us untangle why some people feel that it is problematic to keep human remains in museums.

“The body of the dead, is something onto which people project meaning and emotion, and it is culturally varying how that projection happens and at what stage that projection changes. So when we talk about repatriation and reburial, what in the eyes of an archaeologist or a biological anthropologist may be material for research may still very well be perceived by other stakeholders as an individual to which they owe the duties of a proper burial.”

This fundamental realisation was one point of departure for a K-samtal – a structured conversation – on the topic of repatriation organised by The Swedish National Heritage Board on Dec 18th 2020 and led by Kicki Eldh and Ingela Chef Holmberg. The conversation was part of a continuing effort to support Swedish Museums in their work to develop policies and practices for curation and repatriation that live up to “an exemplary international standard.” Part of this effort has also been the development of support documents for the care for human remains in museum collections and in how to handle repatriation cases.

The conversation between Estelle Lazer (University of Sydney), and Liv Nilsson Stutz (me), was led by Kicki Eldh (for a sound file of the full conversation in English, please click here) and drew on international examples to unpack the complex issues of repatriation, indigenous rights, identity politics, the history of science, colonialism and research. The conversation came to circle back to questions such as “What does it mean to keep to an exemplary standard?”; “What can we learn from international experiences?”; and “What theoretical inquiries can help us problematize the issue, and how can we move from academic discourse to action and solutions?

Estelle Lazer shared her experiences from both Australia and Pompeii, and I drew on my work studying and analysing the repatriation debate in the US and NAGPRA (the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act)

“We need to stop thinking about repatriation as a problem to be solved and instead approach it as an opportunity to learn.”

Both Estelle and I agreed that while we can learn from the international experiences, there is not a golden standard that easily can be transferred from one cultural, historical and political context to another. Instead we must educate ourselves and approach the issue with flexibility. To aim for an exemplary standard must be to learn from experiences and competences, and work toward developing legal instruments that are at the same level as international standards, but that are also tailored to fit the Swedish context.

We must also learn how to be critical. Repatriation cases are not always unproblematic. When approaching these complex issues it is important to be aware of this. But first of all we need to become better listeners, because a successful repatriation is not a process that strives only for closure, but one that is approached as an opportunity for collaboration. In other words, we need to stop thinking about repatriation as a problem to be solved, and instead approach it as an opportunity to learn.

Liv Nilsson Stutz

Caption to figure: Mother with dead child, 19th century, probably American. Art Institute of Chicago, CCO Public Domain

Ethics take center stage at conference on the Archaeology of Death in the Digital Age

This year’s edition of the University of Chester Archaeology Student Conference on the Archaeology of Death, DigiDeath 2021, on January 27-28 (for a complete program as well as links to several of the presentations, please see entry on professor Howard Williams blog Archaeodeath), was dedicated to the public archaeology of digital mortality. The event was clearly framed by the global pandemic. The ever looming themes of death and mortality are not new to the yearly conference devoted specifically to these topics, but the changes in how we die and how we mourn in the time of Covid-19 probably brought the themes of mortality, mourning and commemoration even closer to home this year. In addition, the closure of museums and universities, and the cancellation of conferences, workshops, and other meeting spaces for academic exchange and learning, brought digital tools and social media into focus, and of course, the event took place online.

The papers were presented by students as well as researchers in a range of formats, from live papers presented digitally, to twitter papers and video recordings, all engaging new forms for communication and archiving of academic production.

When summing up the many presentations, several themes around public archaeology and digital tools come into focus, all relating in explicit and implicit ways to broader considerations of ethics – professional and personal.

“Sharing is not always caring”

Several papers on different aspects of public archaeology raised interesting questions about accessibility, education and multi-vocality. While images of archaeological remains and virtual tours of exhibitions serve the important goal of opening up museums, collections, and even the archaeological research process to all, they also pose new questions. Where do we draw the line regarding what to share and how? “Sharing is not always caring” – as stated by Erin Munro in her paper on virtual exhibition tours and mortuary heritage. But how can we tell when we cross the line? Does the showing of human remains become less respectful when it leaves the museum context and moves out on the web – in a virtual exhibit or an instagram post – and if so, why? By asking ourselves these questions we get the opportunity to examine our culturally shaped understanding of museum spaces, and in that process we must also realise that what may be a respectful place in our eyes may be perceived very differently by others

New technologies bring new possibilities – and ethical challenges. The reproduction of 3D models of human remains (paper by Campanacho and Alves Cardoso) invites us to reflect over post mortem privacy and integrity in new ways. This is a growing and unregulated field that has not yet found its ethical footing.

Other ethical issues that were raised related to the ways in which engagement with the public also entails sharing the power over the narrative. Powerful narratives of the past that are presented in the press, in movies, TV series and video games, often take great liberty with the creative license, focusing on the spectacular or gory, highlighting male elites at the expense of others, and reproducing stereotypes about the past. The digital era and its many and various tools intensifies this engagement through online communities, comment sections, an approach to lived experiences through gaming, and so on. What is more important, we may ask: that the past is represented in a “correct” way, or that people engage with it at all? The consequences of misrepresentation might be even higher in the ways in which the press and social media often present archaeology and anthropology, reproducing colonial and ethically questionable images of treasure hunters and grave openers. While these images appear to still attract a part of the public, they are offensive and disrespectful to others and threaten to undermine the work of making archaeology a more respectful and inclusive practice.

In our contemporary digital era, images play a central role in how we communicate with each other and how we draw attention to our work. Online presences on blogs and social media pose new questions about both personal and professional ethics. It is important at this moment to not be satisfied with easy formulaic answers to our ethical dilemmas, but to view our task ahead as one of constant questioning and examining of the ethics of the discipline – and most importantly, of ourselves in our roles as archaeologists and fellow human beings.