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FAQ: human remains in historical collections at KI.

Why do KI have collections of human remains?

During the 1800s’, a large anatomical museum was connected to KI, as was the case with many similar medical institutions, for example the medical faculties in Uppsala, Lund and in other Nordic countries. At these museums, remains of animals and humans were exhibited and simultaneously used for education and research purposes. The collection of human remains at KI today originates from the anatomical museum.

How big is the collection?

The collection of human remains at KI consists of remains from approximately 800 individuals. In comparison, the historical anatomical collection at Lund University has 2048 remains and the collection at Helsinki University includes 1425 remains.

How was the collection created?

Skulls and bones were collected by anatomists during the 1800s. Bones and skulls were considered important objects of study for the investigation of human history, variation and geographical distribution. “Physical anthropology”, which was the name of this sub-discipline, described geographical and ethnical variation in terms of race. The anatomists were, among other things, trying to investigate how Scandinavia was populated after the latest ice age. KI anatomists received human remains through exchanges with other anatomists, diplomats, sea captains and sales men. They also participated in research expeditions were they collected human remains.

What is happening with the collection today?

KI is now conducting extensive documentary investigations into the origins of the collection. These investigations are purely historical. The objective is to uncover as much information as possible about how the human remains were brought to KI, were they came from and under what circumstances. The historical anatomical collection is not exhibited in any way, nor is it available to medical or any other kind of scientific investigations. All human remains at KI are stored and handled in accordance with the ethical guidelines issued by International Committee of Museums (ICOM).

Why is historical investigation taking so long?

To explore and investigate the origins of the anatomical historical collection is difficult detective work. Only some of the original documentation is still available, due to a loss of catalogues and parts of the collections in a fire in 1892. After the fire, it was decided that the old catalogue should be replaced by a new, numerical system. These numbers, however, does not fully match other types of historical information found in documentation and published works. In other words: there is a significant gap between the documentation that is available today and the collection itself. These circumstances complicate the historical investigations.

Why are repatriation processes so lengthy?

From a lay perspective, it might seem unnecessary that repatriation processes are so lengthy. The reason for this is two-fold. First, repatriation is a formal process. It involves several decisions by official organs and authorities on different levels, including governments, in two countries. Second, ethical guidelines prescribe a very high level of certainty regarding the identity of the remains in question, and on the receiving part as well.
In addition, there are extensive demands on the receiving part to verify that the repatriated remains will be handled correctly after repatriation. These guidelines and the formal process are security measures, issued to protect the remains. KI has repatriated remains to New Zeeland, Australia, French Polynesia and U.S.A.