Finnish remains in Karolinska Institutet's collections

Karolinska Institutet, like many medical schools, has a historical anatomical collection. The collection consists today of little over 800 human remains, which can be compared to collections in Helsinki with 1,400, and Harvard University with 22,000 remains. More recently, questions about Finnish remains in the collection have been raised by interest groups and in the media. Below you will find information about the remains from Finland, and what governs the return of remains.

Short history

Karolinska Institutet’s (KI’s) anatomical museum was started by anatomy professor Anders Retzius. From around 1830 until his death in 1860, Retzius collected and organized preparations of human and animal body parts for research and education. The museum included a “craniological” collection, The craniological collection, which was assembled for the purpose of studying how the world and the Nordic region were populated over the course of history, and to examine the similarities and differences between ancient and contemporary peoples. Very little of the original anatomy collections have been preserved to this day.

KI’s historical anatomical collection currently contains 77 remains, which have been identified as coming from present-day Finland. This is one of the most extensive groups in the collection, apart from Swedish remains. The largest set among the remains from Finland were brought to KI following an expedition carried out by three young researchers, including Gustaf Retzius, in the summer of 1873. These are also the oldest Finnish remains in the collection, as they were excavated from abandoned cemeteries in Pälkäne, Sundholmasaari, Nestarinsaari, and Rautalampi. According to historical sources, these remains should be from the 16th or 17th centuries. This set of remains thus has a different history compared to the other remains from Finland, which were gifted or exchanged between anatomists in Finland and Sweden.

KI's ambition is to take responsibility for its history with openness and transparency. The Legacy of Anders and Gustaf Retzius is the subject of an ongoing review that started in 2019. 

Source: In response to requests for their return, KI has documented and investigated the Finnish remains in the collection. Are you interested in the full report? Contact Maria Josephson

Repatriating remains: practices and standards

Every repatriation of human remains from university collections is an exception to the rule that Swedish public universities and museums may not give away government property (which includes collections of remains). In each case, a thorough investigation is conducted and reported to the Ministry of Education, which makes the decision. KI has carried out several repatriations in recent years, including to French PolynesiaAotearoa/New Zealand, and Australia.

For repatriations to indigenous peoples, there are established practices, supported by guidelines from the International Committée of Museums, and the Swedish National Heritage Board. The guidelines state that indigenous remains should be returned if a legitimate request is received, and the origin of the remains can be ensured. The request needs to be made by an official representative of the ethnic group concerned, and this representative needs have a mandate to speak for the group. Certifying the origin of the remains is important in order to avoid mistakes, such as repatriating remains to the wrong place, nation, or indigenous group. Collections such as KI's are poorly documented, which makes it difficult and time-consuming to establish the identity and origin of the remains. 

Repatriating remains to indigenous peoples is to be regarded as part of a reconciliation process, and a recognition of the oppression suffered by these groups. The inclusion of indigenous remains into anatomy collections is often part of a history of colonial exploitation.

There are, however, no established practices and guidelines regarding remains of majority populations from independent states. This lack of praxis complicates the question relating to the Finnish remains. 

Requests for repatriating remains from Finland

KI was first contacted with a request to repatriate Finnish remains in 2018. The requests came from an independent group, the Committee for the Return of Finnish Remains in Karolinska Institutet's collection. Since the group does not represent Finland as a nation, nor an indigenous people, KI could not accommodate their wishes. As a Swedish public agency, KI does not and should not act independently towards another state; intergovernmental issues should 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 identity, as far as possible. The investigation showed that the excavation undertaken by three KI researchers in the summer of 1873 was indeed legal but should be regarded as ethically and morally problematic according to today’s standards. KI, therefore, apologized for the actions of the three researchers. 

In May 2020, the investigation report was sent to the Finnish authorities, as well as to the Committee for the Return of Finnish Remains in Karolinska Institutet's collection. The relevant Swedish authorities have also been informed of the investigation. 

What is KI's approach to returning the Finnish remains?

Media reports have stated that KI does not want to return the Finnish remains. This is not true. KI has no agenda in relation to the Finnish remains. Our mission in relation to the remains is to store and manage them with respect and in accordance with existing legal requirements and ethical guidelines. When returns are prepared and carried out, it is our mission to ensure that they are properly implemented. That is to say, ensure that the right remains are returned to the right recipient and that the remains are handled with respect and dignity throughout the process. 

The lack of practice for the return of remains between independent states makes the issue of Finnish remains more complex than returns to indigenous peoples. 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.

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 KI will, in every way, support such a process if or when it is initiated.