The Museum's current policy on human remains is being reassessed as part of the action plan stated in the Morton Collection Committee report. Updates will be published here.
This document has been developed by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum) to provide a clear statement about the respectful treatment and diligent curation of human remains in the Museum’s care while supporting the Museum’s commitment to understanding human biological and cultural variability around the world. Given the University’s mission as a research and educational institution and the Museum’s mission to transform understanding of the human experience through collections stewardship, research, teaching, and public engagement, the following statement provides a general framework that acknowledges the complexities of human remains as part of our collections and strives to ensure that any use of our collections is conducted in a professional and respectful way.
Research on human remains is at the core of the Museum’s research agenda. It yields information on health, diet, population structure, and human interaction with the environment, as well as culture as seen, for example, in impacts on the human body, mortuary practices, social and political status, and inequality, all of which inform our understanding of human history and prehistory and contribute to our knowledge of living human population and cultural diversity.
2.0 Principles and Definitions
This statement explicitly acknowledges that human remains are a special category of sensitive material. As such, our collections stewardship of human remains treats them with particular respect. The Museum recognizes that there are wide legal, ethical, and cross-cultural expectations and considerations that should be acknowledged with regard to the care and stewardship of human remains.
This statement is informed by the ethical codes promoted by various professional bodies such as the Association of American Museums (AAM) and the Society for American Archaeology (SAA). More specifically, the Museum is subject to NAGPRA (the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, Public Law 101-601) and related regulations and guidelines concerning Native American and Native Hawaiian remains.
For the purposes of this statement, human remains include tangible or recognizable bodies or parts of bodies of once living humans. They typically include bones and soft tissues where preserved, whether exposed or non-exposed to direct observation (e.g. wrapped mummies as an example of the latter), but potentially can include body parts that are naturally or culturally shed (e.g. teeth, hair, nails). Human remains can also form part of cultural objects (e.g. artifacts crafted directly out of human bone).
3.0 Collections Stewardship
Since its founding in 1887, the Penn Museum has collected approximately one million objects, mostly obtained directly through its own field excavations and anthropological expeditions. The Museum's vast and varied collections are in active service to the University of Pennsylvania community and researchers around the world. They are housed in eleven (11) curatorial sections: African, American, Asian, Babylonian, Egyptian, European Archaeology, Historic, Mediterranean, Near East, Oceanian, and Physical Anthropology.
The Museum’s human remains consist of more than 12,000 individuals from around the world and are curated primarily in the Physical Anthropology Section, with some exceptions found in the other Curatorial Sections. The Museum strives to adopt best practices for the stewardship and curation of human remains.
Human remains are described according to the best current scientific practices of physical anthropology. The data recorded include: identification numbers; culture area; cultural affiliation; period information; type of remains; age and sex; state or region of origin; location in state or region of origin; context in which remains were collected; collector or source of collection; collection date; status of location in museum; associated funerary objects, if applicable; and any additional information about the remains.
In addition, human remains are scientifically described with appropriate measurements. Approximately 700 measurements and observations can be made on a human skeleton depending on the completeness of the remains. These observations and measurements are essential to precisely identify the materials and are critical for our record keeping at the Museum.
Human remains are also documented by means of imagery. These images include standard black and white or color photographs as well as digital photographs. CT scans and radiology are also performed to provide basic documentation.
The acquisition of human remains is handled on a case-by-case basis and generally derives from the transfer of remains from peer institutions (e.g. the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University) when the Penn Museum is deemed to be a more appropriate repository. All acquisitions are reviewed by the Museum’s Acquisitions Committee in line with the Acquisitions Policy and Procedures. As of November 1990, the Museum acquires Native American human remains only in accordance with the provisions of Public Law 101-601.
The deaccessioning of human remains is handled on a case-by-case basis and generally occurs as a result of NAGPRA-related repatriation processes overseen by the Museum’s NAGPRA Committee. All deaccessions must be approved by the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania.
The loaning or borrowing of human remains is handled on a case-by-case basis and generally occurs in response to specific requests for research or special exhibitions. The Registrar’s Office handles all of the relevant processing in conjunction with the relevant Curatorial Sections. Borrowers are expected to conform to the principles outlined in this statement.
The Museum aspires to best practices for the collections stewardship and storage of human remains. Improvements are constantly being made in terms of storage containers, furniture, and environmental conditions.
The Museum allows access to the human remains it stewards in line with its related missions of research, teaching, and public engagement. Access to collections storerooms is restricted to authorized staff, students, volunteers, and researchers, all of whom log their access in storeroom logbooks. Some special subsets of human remains (e.g. NAGPRA-related remains) are further restricted.
The handling of human remains is further restricted to those personnel who have undergone specific training. To facilitate our missions of teaching and public engagement, where handling human remains is less restricted for educational needs, the Museum has established special “teaching collections” of human remains.
Human remains are sometimes stabilized using certain types of consolidants and adhesives. In general, when further conservation of human remains is required (e.g. to stabilize them for display), the Museum aspires to minimal intervention and the use of reversible treatments that will maintain the integrity of the remains.
In some instances, sampling may be performed if it is determined by the Museum to be useful in the process of dating human remains, understanding population trends, and/or assigning cultural affiliation (e.g. 14C dating, isotopic analysis, DNA analysis). Requests for sampling are reviewed and approved by the Museum’s Scientific Testing Committee. The sampling of any Native American or Native Hawaiian remains are also reviewed and approved by the Museum’s NAGPRA Committee.
Research on the Museum’s human remains ranges from archival research that takes place in the Museum Archives to hands-on work that takes place within Museum storerooms to collaborative work around the world that uses samples derived from the Museum and to virtual research that makes use of the Museum’s extensive collections of digital data (e.g. CT Scans, DNA data, and isotopic data).
In some galleries, exhibitions, classrooms, publications, and online the Museum displays human remains and/or images of human remains respectfully in accordance with its overlapping missions of research, teaching, and public engagement. The Museum may choose to display human remains when their material component is deemed necessary for the interpretation of understandings of the human experience.
The Museum informs visitors about the display of recognizable human remains in its exhibition spaces. Since much of the Museum’s exhibition galleries are also corridors thru the Museum, the Exhibition Team considers the location of human remains on display carefully and provides explanatory labels or materials to interpret the human remains for visitors.
6.0 Educational Use
The Museum may choose to use human remains for educational purposes, primarily through guided tours of gallery displays, when they are deemed necessary for the interpretation of anthropological or archaeological understandings of the human experience. The Museum’s educational use of human remains includes University-level teaching and educational programs designed for middle school, high school, and adult audiences.
6.1 University Teaching
An essential component of the Museum’s teaching mission is to train undergraduates and graduate students in anthropology and archaeology. Understanding the nature and significance of human remains, is essential when studying human evolution, anatomy, growth & development, and forensics. Although replicas of hominid fossils are key tools for elucidating human evolution, nothing compares to the reality of actual human remains when trying to understand the range and variation of anthropological, biological, and physical traits and characteristics. As a result, the Museum’s teaching collections and curated human remains form an active component of undergraduate and graduate-level training.
6.2 Public Programs
The Museum’s Public Programs Department on occasion hosts programs that involve or pertain to human remains. In appropriate instances, and under the supervision of appropriate personnel who facilitate the interaction with visitors, the Museum may choose to display human remains respectfully in accordance with our overlapping missions of research, teaching, and public engagement.
6.3 K-12 Teaching
The Museum’s Learning Programs Department which focuses mainly on K-12 audiences and K-12 teachers, does not use human remains in their museum educator-facilitated teaching or programs. Replicas are substituted where needed. Upon request, some special K-12 programs about forensic science using human remains are facilitated by Physical Anthropology specialists.
6.4 Special Curricular Teaching
In rare circumstances, human remains are used by personnel in the Physical Anthropology Section to fulfil special curricular needs of non-university students (e.g. community service programs, internships, and tours).