FAQ on the human remains in KI’s collections

Why does Karolinska Institutet keep collections of human remains and what is their current situation? Here are the answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about the human remains in Karolinska Institutet’s historical anatomical collection.

Why does KI house collections of human skulls and other remains?

In the 1880s, Karolinska Institutet had an anatomical museum that collected and displayed the remains of humans and animals. The museum was the brainchild of Anders Retzius (1796 - 1860), professor of anatomy at Karolinska Institutet. Anders’s son Gustaf Retzius (1842 - 1919) followed in his father’s footsteps and continued to expand the museum and its collection. The museum was used for teaching and research, and was open to the public. Similar collections were kept at the medical faculties of Uppsala and Lund universities as well as at the universities of our Nordic neighbours and around the world. There is now little left of Karolinska Institutet’s anatomical collections.

How large is the craniological collection?

KI’s collection of human skulls and other remains currently comprises some 800 individuals. This can be compared with around 2,000 in the collection of Lund University’s Department of Anatomy, 1,425 at Helsinki University and over 25,000 at London’s Natural History Museum.

How was the craniological collection started?

The skulls were collected primarily by 19th century anatomists studying human history, migration and variation. This science of physical anthropology described geographical and ethnic variation in terms of race and examined human anatomy, particularly skills, to identify differences and similarities between modern and prehistoric Scandinavians in order to chart the settlement of the region since the Ice Age. Remains from other parts of the world were also collected and studied. Scientists at KI obtained human remains through exchanges with colleagues, on research expeditions and from diplomats, sea captains and traders.

What is KI currently doing with its craniological collection?

Since 2015, Karolinska Institutet has been documenting and compiling details of the historical anatomical collections using archive material, such as letters and records. A key aspect of this historical research is to ascertain how the remains were collected and brought to KI. The historical anatomical collection is not available for scientific research, is not on public show, and is preserved with dignity in a locked store room on the Solna campus. All handling of the remains complies with the ethical guidelines issued by the International Committee of Museums (ICOM).

Why is the documentation of the craniological collection taking so long?

All parts of the KI collection suffer from a lack of documentation, which makes it hard to determine with certainty the provenance of the remains and the circumstances under which they entered the collection. The main reason for this is the loss of catalogues in the fire of 1892, which destroyed part of the collection, particularly many of the Sami remains. When the collection was re-assembled in the years following, no new catalogue was compiled and the entire numbering system was changed. Consequently, the numbering of the collection since the 1890s does not correspond directly with the available information from before the fire.

Another reason is that collections like the one at KI and at other older medical universities and museums were not static at the time of their use. It was common practice for researchers to swap remains with each other, and the lack of care they took to record these informal exchanges makes it very difficult to track down remains that have disappeared from the collection. 

Put simply: there’s a disparity between the existing documentation and the actual collections.

Why is repatriation so complicated?

From the outside, it might seem strange that repatriation processes are so protracted, sometimes taking as long as ten or more years. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that the several authorities must make their formal decision before any actual handover can be effected. The human remains in the Swedish collections are officially government property, and individual universities, like KI, may therefore not make repatriation decisions on their own initiative. 

The second is that there must be absolute certainty that the right remains are being repatriated and that the repatriation request comes from the only legitimate recipient. Due to the historical fluidity of both national boundaries and indigenous settlement, a thorough investigation is often needed before repatriation. Karolinska Institutet has, at the request of New Zealand, Australia, French Polynesia and the USA, repatriated human remains to the respective indigenous communities. We have also made contact with indigenous representatives in North America, where there has been an established repatriation organisation since the 1990s, and so far arranged several repatriations.

In October 2022, Karolinska Institutet president Ole Petter Ottersen sent a letter to the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs with a proposal concerning the repatriation of remains from Finland. You can read more about the proposal and the remains here.

Previous news about the collection

Repatriation to Australia

Medicinvetarna: a podcast on the craniological collection

On the repatriation of the human remains from Finland

About KI and the Retzius legacy