Final Conference: Changing Ethics in Addressing Human Remains
Georg-August University Göttingen | Project “Sensitive Provenances”
17. November 2023 08.30 Uhr
Holbornsches Haus, Rote Straße 34, 37073 Göttingen
In the course of working together in interdisciplinary configuration on questions of human remains collections, ethics and their changing dynamics arose as an important issue to discuss. Our diverse disciplinary backgrounds, as well as the process of preparing and conducting two restitution of human remains, made us aware of significant differences in individual and disciplinary attitudes towards ethical considerations of postcolonial reckoning on the one hand, and scientific procedure and scientific heritage and history on the other. For example, a restitution claim made in 2022 turned out to include two crania from the collection that Johann Friedrich Blumenbach himself acquired. This collection, for some, has been seen as carrying a particular historical significance and scientific heritage, and reaching an agreement about restituting these skulls required a great deal of discussion. We are convinced that discussing the meanings and value of human remains, as well as past and present ethical attitudes toward them, will result in a better grasp of the numerous issues at stake. Another topic we discussed intensely, is the use of contemporary racial, ethnic, and national categories in both the scholarly practice related to human remains, and in facilitating restitutions. A continuous use of racial categories relates to numerous ethical and political concerns, which necessitate careful consideration.
Our project has been able to facilitate two restitution ceremonies (to Hawai‘i in February 2022, and to Aoteaora/New Zealand with a Maori and Moriori delegation in June 2023). The university has several further restitution claims awaiting preparation. Our project will end before all of these claims can be fully addressed, and more are likely to come. What became clear for us from the beginning of the project, however, is that restitution will only lead to a partial and limited redress, and numerous ethical considerations remain open. One major issue is addressing all the human remains which are not asked for and the “provenance” of which will be impossible to establish due to lacking archival materials. What ethical standards should be applied to the future handling of such “remaining remains”, and their potential use for teaching and research purposes?
The conference will unfold in three sessions, with a strong emphasis on discussion and exchange of ideas. We foresee for each presenter to offer a brief (15-20 minutes maximum) input which then will open into a round-table discussion where further discussants will join. “Note takers” from our team will be active all day and offer brief summations of central questions of the day, before a joint, concluding discussion.
9:00 Brief welcome
9:15 Panel I
“Instructing Humanity, Collecting Race: Robert Jameson and the University of Edinburgh's Natural History Museum in 1817” by Linda Anderson Burnet and Bruce Buchan
“Human remains in the history of anthropology: status, uses, and values” by Nélia Dias
“The Making of Material Sovereignty on Moloka‘i” by Martin Skrydstrup
Round-table discussion: Bruce Buchan, Linda Anderson Burnet, Nélia Dias, Richard Hölzl, Martin Skrydstrup, Malin Wilckens
Moderator: Regina F. Bendix
11:00 Coffee Break
11:30 Panel II
“From trash to relics: the issue of human remains’ remains” by Elisabeth Gessat Anstett
“Theory and reality” by Birgit Großkopf
Round-table discussion: Elisabeth Gessat Anstett, Rainer Brömer, Birgit Großkopf, Silke Schicktanz
Moderator: Nélia Dias
13:00 Lunch Break
14:30 Panel III
“The case against biological thinking about social group attribution in provenance research” by Phila Msimang
“Do bones have races?” by Joanna Karolina Malinowska
Round-table discussion: Abigail Nieves Delgado, Jonatan Kurzwelly, Joanna Karolina Malinowska, Phila Msimang
Moderator: Martin Skrydstrup
16:00 Coffee Break
16:30 Brief summaries and open discussion
Brief Summaries: t.b.a.
Moderator: Regina F. Bendix
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