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/