Personhood Post-Mortem: A Survey Of Ethical Policies Within Collections Of Human Remains

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University of Delaware
The aim of this study was to survey changing ethics policy within collections containing human remains. This was conducted in in the context of the April 2021 controversy which centered around the University of Pennsylvania’s and Princeton University’s handling of the skeletal remains of victims of the 1985 police bombing of the MOVE residence. Although discussions of ethics had been developing since the 1990s, multiple museum, anthropology, and public officials denounced the ways in which these remains were used and asserted that they would be re-examining their policy relating to collections policy of human remains. However, the practical implementations of these re-examinations have remained in private discussions among collections professionals. To investigate the consensus among collection professionals of human remains collections ethics and their current developments, this study aimed to differentiate collection purposes by their historical lineage and to compare ethical museum policies of acquisition, documentation, access, and repatriation. The survey was sent to fifteen collections, but only six replies were received, primarily from curators and collections managers of medical and forensic collections. Those that did participate did not have a formal written policy regarding the treatment of human remains and relied on general collections practices or informal ethical discussions. To gain a perspective of unwritten institutional policies, the focus of the study was changed to anecdotal evidence of institutional attitudes and policy development given by interviews of five out of the six responders. This study concluded that the most widely agreed upon ethical policy is to establish and maintain documented provenance of human remains within collections, but issues of acquisition, access, removal or return, and training policy have yet to come to field wide consensus.
Collections, Ethics policy, Human remains