On Finnish remains in Karolinska Institutet’s anatomical collection

Karolinska Institutet’s historical collections contain over 800 human remains, which the university is working tirelessly to have repatriated.
More recently, questions about Finnish remains in the collection have been raised by interest groups and in the media. This article outlines the history of these particular human remains and what governs their repatriation.

A brief history

KI’s historical anatomical collection currently contains 82 skulls that have been identified as having come from present-day Finland. This is one of the most extensive groups in the collection, apart from what was sourced from Sweden. The oldest Finnish remains in the collection are – probably – those taken from excavations in Pälkäne, Sundholmasaari, Nestarinsaari, and Rautalampi. According to historical sources on when these cemeteries were use, these remains ought to date back to the 16th or 17th centuries.

The craniological collection began to be assembled in the 1930s by then anatomy professor Anders Retzius, who devoted the years from around 1830 to his death in 1860 to building up the anatomical collections (preparations of human and animal skeletons) in their entirety. The purpose of the craniological collections was to understand, through the science of physical anthropology, how the world and the Nordic region were populated over the course of human history, and to examine the similarities and differences between ancient and contemporary peoples.

The KI collections currently comprise over 800 human remains, the majority of which are those of Swedes. This makes it a relatively small collection in comparison with similar ones in Helsinki (1,400 remains) and London (25,000 remains).

The vast majority of the KI skulls originating from Finland come from a specific research and collection expedition that three young scientists, among them one Gustaf Retzius, took to Finland in the summer of 1873. This part of the collection therefore differs from the rest, which was amassed trough donations and exchange. The group carried out excavations at four sites: Pälkäne (Birkaland), Sundholmasaari in the parish of Pielavesi (North Savolax), Nestorinsaari (in Kyrosjärvi, also in Birklanad) and Rautalampi (Tavastland). 

KI's ambition is to take responsibility for its history with openness and transparency, and in this spirit launched an ongoing review of the legacy of Anders and Gustaf Retzius in 2019. 

Unfortunately, a fire at the end of the 19th century that partly destroyed the collection’s records and registers has hampered this work, so meticulous efforts are now being made to restore notes and study the contents of the collections.

Source: In response to requests for their repatriation, KI has conducted an investigation of the Finnish remains in the collection. If you are interested in the full report, contact Maria Josephson.


Repatriating remains: practices and standards

Every repatriation of human remains from university collections is formally regarded as an exception to the rule that Swedish public universities and museums may not take it upon themselves to give away government property (which includes collections of remains). Repatriation decisions are made by the Ministry of Education following a thorough investigation by the institution concerned. KI has carried out several repatriations in recent years, including to French PolynesiaAotearoa/New Zealand, and Australia.

For repatriations to indigenous peoples, the established practice, as ratified by International Committee of Museums and the Swedish National Heritage Board, is that indigenous remains should be returned if a legitimate request is received and if the origin of the remains can be confirmed beyond doubt. Legitimacy entails that the request be made by an official who represents the ethnic group concerned and has a mandate to speak on their behalf. Certifying the origin of the remains is important in order to avoid repatriation of the wrong remains and other such mistakes. Collections such as KI's are poorly documented, which makes it difficult and time-consuming to establish the identity and origin of human remains.

Repatriating remains to indigenous peoples is to be regarded as part of a reconciliation process, and recognition of the oppression suffered by these groups, of which the taking of human remains is just one aspect. There are, however, no established practices and international guidelines regarding the remains of majority populations from independent states, and this lack of praxis complicates the repatriation of those from Finland. 

Requests for the repatriation of the Finnish remains

KI was first contacted with a request to repatriate Finnish remains in 2018 from an independent group, the Committee for the Return of Finnish Remains in Karolinska Institutet's Collection. The committee has made several repeated requests since then.

Since the group does not represent Finland as a nation or an indigenous people, as the collection comprises human remains from the Finnish majority population, KI can not accommodate their wishes and handle the matter on its own initiative. As a Swedish public agency, KI does not and should not act independently towards another state, as intergovernmental issues must be dealt with at government level. 

However, KI’s Unit for Medical History and Heritage promptly initiated an investigation into the Finnish remains in order to ascertain how KI acquired them and to shed light on their history and, ideally, identity. The investigation showed that the excavation undertaken by three KI researchers in the summer of 1873 might indeed have been legal back then, but is to be regarded as ethically and morally problematic by today’s standards. KI therefore apologised for the trio’s actions. 

In May 2020, the investigation report was sent to the Finnish authorities and to the Committee for the Return of Finnish Remains in Karolinska Institutet's Collection. The relevant Swedish authorities were also informed of the investigation. 

What is KI’s approach to the repatriation of the Finnish remains?

Reports in the media and comments on social media have claimed that KI is unwilling to return the Finnish remains. This is not true. Our job in relation to the remains is to store and manage them with respect and in accordance with existing guidelines. When repatriations are prepared and carried out, it is up to us to ensure that everything is done correctly and that the right remains are returned to the right recipient and handled with respect and dignity throughout the process. 

The lack of practice for the repatriation of human remains between independent states makes the issue of the Finnish remains more complex than it would be for an indigenous people. KI does not adopt its own position on the matter, but we are keen not to overstep our mandate or to inadvertently set a new precedent for similar cases. Decisions on repatriation between independent states are made through dialogue between the respective elected assemblies.

At the same time, we understand that the issue of the Finnish remains generates strong feelings. We hope that the issue can be resolved constructively, and will support such a process in any way we can if and when one is initiated.  

On 18 October 2022, Karolinska Institutet president Ole Petter Ottersen wrote to the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs to follow up the issue of the Finnish human remains and to make a concrete proposal that Sweden offer to repatriate them in 2023, 150 years after their exhumation. KI pledges to do everything in our power to ensure that this matter is handled in a way that is productive and respectful to all parties. With this, the matter is now in the hands of the government. It is KI’s expressed wish that Finland and Sweden will be able to bring the matter to a dignified, respectful and considerate close.

You can read the President’s letter in full on the President’s blog.

On the 18:th of april 2024 the Swedish government made the formal decision that KI can repatriate the finnish remains to Finland. 

If you want to read the report on the Finnish human remains or have any questions about this issue, please contact Maria Josephsson.

Content reviewer: