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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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