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Return of human remains? Practices, implications and ethical issues

Call for papers. The National Committee for Research Ethics on Human Remains (Skjelettutvalget) invites submissions for an interdisciplinary seminar on the issue of the return of human remains and research ethics 4 November 2021, Oslo, Norway.  

The seminar seeks to revisit and explore the various avenues for the return of human remains, different practices, voices and stakeholders. To bring human remains back to their place of origin, their ancestors or family can be considered a human right – the right to decide the fate of one´s ancestors. At the same time, since returned human remains are often reburied, the opportunity to obtain new knowledge about the past through research on human remains is often lost as a result. Questions surrounding the return of human remains are often challenging, complex and contextually specific, raising a number of ethical issues at a time when indigenous groups and descendants seek greater control over not only historical places and items, but also human remains. 

The question of return, be it artefacts or human remains, creates a need for fresh dialogue in order to overcome colonial histories, reconcile long-standing disputes and as a process of democratization. The opinions of scholars, excavators, curators, legislators and those who claim return often differ. Aiming to provide a forum for the exchange of ideas and to investigate the diversity that exists, we invite individuals from all of these backgrounds to present papers and engage in discussions on the issue of the return of human remains and research ethics.   

The keynote speakers are Elina Anttila, Director General of The National Museum of Finland and Liv Nilsson Stutz, senior lecturer at Linnaeus University. The titles for their talks are: ”Return of human remains – a museum’s perspective to repatriation” (Anttila) and “Repatriation of human remains as decolonization strategy and activism. Drawing from experience and contemplating new challenges” (Stutz). In October 2020, the committee organized a webinar as a short introduction to the topic. The key-note speakers will elaborate on the topics they introduced at the webinar. The rest of the program is pending. 

We invite contributors to send abstracts (up to 250 words) and a brief bio (up to 100 words) to the secretary for the committee, Lene Os Johannessen (e-mail), no later than August 20, 2021. 

The National Committee for Research Ethics on Human Remains was established in 2008, by the ministry of Education and Research. The need to establish an independent national committee became evident in connection with research and collections of Sami human remains, and requests to return parts of this material during the 1990s and the early 2000. The committee has on several occasions since 2008, given ethical advice in cases of demand of return of human remains. Learn more about the committee here