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Commitment on the treatment of human remains

In recent years, there has been a change in the way human remains are dealt with in museums. Their status within the collections is unique, as they are not simply cultural property; they are the remains of a deceased person and should be treated with dignity and respect. At the National Museum of Anthropology, we are very aware of this, and after a process of profound reflection, we have prepared this 'Charter of commitment regarding the handling of human remains' at the museum.

Human remains at the MNA

The MNA holds 4,426 inventoried items of human remains.

The vast majority are part of the physical anthropology collection. These were added to the museum’s collections in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At this early stage of the museum’s development, the institution - and the prevailing scientific climate of the time - did not draw a clear distinction between physical anthropology (today considered a part of biology) and social and cultural anthropology, which today are grouped among the social sciences.

The museum’s founder, the physician Pedro González Velasco, had a significant collection dedicated to medicine, physical anthropology and teratology. Some of his collection can now be found in other museums, particularly the Javier Puerta Museum (Department of Anatomy, Faculty of Medicine, Complutense University of Madrid).

The vast majority of these remains are skeletal; they mostly comprise individual osteological material, especially skulls. Only 13 complete skeletons and 6 mummies are preserved. The Museum also has artefacts that include human remains - such as bone, skin or hair - among their components. Hair is the most common of these materials.

Unfortunately, most of the osteological material, in accordance with the general lack of museological standards when it was collected, is of unknown provenance (76%). Of the human remains with known provenance, 66% are Spanish, followed by 13% from the Philippines. There are human remains from Europe (70.5%), Asia (14%), America (11%), Africa (3%) and Oceania (1.5%).

Commitments

1. Regarding the display of human remains

  • At the MNA, human remains shall not be displayed when the community of origin of the remains is against their public display. This is the case, for example, with the Atacameño people, who oppose the exhibition of the Atacama mummies. The traditions and beliefs of the community of origin shall also be taken into account when exposing human remains.
  • Human remains will only be exhibited when it is essential to understand the message that the museum intends to convey and this cannot be done in any other way with the same effectiveness.
  • Human remains shall always be displayed in context.
  • Human remains shall always be presented to the public with respect.

2. Regarding the loan of human remains to other institutions

  • Institutions requesting the short-term loan of human remains held by the MNA for a temporary exhibition, or requesting a transfer of custody of the same for a permanent exhibition, must comply with the Museum's commitments regarding the display of human remains.
  • A working group will assess all requests to display human remains; this group will be composed of members of the MNA technical team and any external advisors, especially members of the communities of origin, who may participate.
  • As with all other loans, institutions must comply with the necessary conservation and security requirements, which can be consulted on the museum's website: https://www.culturaydeporte.gob.es/mnantropologia/fondos/prestamo-colecciones.html

3. Regarding the release of images featuring human remains

  • As for material loans, images of human remains held by the Museum or images from the Museum's photographic archives showing human remains will not be released if this is not duly justified, the image is not accompanied by sufficient information to contextualise the remains depicted, or the images are not treated with the utmost respect.
  • In no case will images of human remains be released if the communities of origin do not want them to be publicly displayed.
  • Consult the general procedure for requesting an image release here: https://www.culturaydeporte.gob.es/mnantropologia/servicios/toma-de-im-genes-y-filmaciones.html

4. Regarding access to human remains in storage for research, documentation or sampling purposes

  • The MNA commits to keeping an inventory of the human remains held by the museum up to date and available on its website.
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Link to the inventory of remains from AfricaPDF

Link to the inventory of remains from AmericaPDF

Link to the inventory of remains from AsiaPDF

Link to the inventory of remains from EuropePDF

Link to the inventory of remains from OceaniaPDF

Link to the inventory of the remains of unknown provenancePDF

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  • Persons wishing to have access to the human remains held by the Museum must make a justified request, taking into account this Commitment Charter, addressed to the Museum’s management: documentacion.mna@cultura.gob.ese-mail. In it, the requester must explain the project in which their request is framed and duly justify the need for access to the remains.
  • A working group will assess all requests to work with human remains; this group will be composed of members of the MNA technical team and any external advisors, especially members of the communities of origin.
  • Where the community of origin objects to the human remains of their ancestors being seen by outsiders or being researched or documented without their permission - as is the case with the Atacama mummies - no one shall have access to them, except with the permission of authorised representatives of that community. Although the remains themselves will not be accessible, researchers can consult the Museum’s documentation and information relating to them, with the exception of images.
  • Persons authorised to access the remains will be accompanied by members of the Museum's technical team.
  • The remains may only be handled by members of the Museum's technical staff.
  • The remains shall be treated with respect and dignity at all times .
  • Once the research, documentation or other type of work pertaining to the remains is complete, a copy of the results must be sent to the Museum.
  • Photography, filming or sampling of human remains in storage is generally not permitted. These activities may, however, be considered if the request is duly justified.

5. Regarding the preservation of human remains

  • Most of the human remains are kept in a specific storage room, namely the physical anthropology collection. The conservation and security measures in place there are similar to those of the rest of the museum's collections. Given their special nature, as these are the remains of deceased persons and not objects, we commit to improving the storage conditions of the remains to give them greater dignity. We will consult the communities of origin to include their requests and suggestions regarding the storage and preservation of the remains in order to do so in the most appropriate manner from the point of view of their culture of origin.
  • Where the remains require restorative interventions, the principles of minimum intervention and reversibility shall be applied.

6. Regarding the addition of new human remains to the collections

  • The museum's growth policy focuses on cultural goods and documentation that provide a window onto the reality of today's cultures. The MNA has no intention of adding human remains in any form to its museum collections.
  • Only in exceptional circumstances - if the human remains are in danger of not being preserved, and they cannot be preserved in another institution - will the MNA consider receiving them via a transfer of custody. In such cases, it will only hold them until their proper and respectful preservation in the relevant context can be ensured.

The commitments in this charter do not affect artefacts that include human hair in their materials, as long as the community of origin agrees to this caveat.

This charter will come into effect from its publication on the museum's website in July 2022. The MNA undertakes to review and update it periodically, and to listen to and consider modifications submitted by representatives of all societies and cultures associated with the museum's collections.

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