Collaborative Care of Human Remains

Building a 21st Century Model for the Care of North American Human Remains

Currently, more than 175,000 North American indigenous human remains are curated in U.S. and Canadian museums and other repositories. These individuals hold great cultural significance to descendent communities and simultaneously have potential value for substantive scientific research that could benefit a broad public. The Field Museum is among several collections-holding research institutions that struggle to refine, update, and implement ethical standards for the respectful care of human remains that can be sustained over time. In response, the Field Museum collaborates with descendent communities and other partners to develop flexible solutions that are responsive to the potential needs and outcomes related to the care of North American human remains, including repatriation, scientific research, and long-term curation.

Over the last three years, and thanks to a generous grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), the Field Museum has begun to address these needs in a pilot program. First, we held a two-day long invited symposium, which brought together leaders from Native North American communities and First Nations, museum professionals, and scientists to identify challenging issues, discuss multiple perspectives, and develop potential solutions. This symposium allowed us to refine and implement a forward-looking standard of ethical care, beginning with the approximately 1,500 North American human remains at the Field Museum.

We have also created a private interactive space for symposium participants. In that section of the site, we are able to disseminate products from the symposium and lessons learned from this pilot program, including sample inventory sheets, presentations, publications, examples of research and data-collection tools, and designs for boxes and other re-housing essentials. When appropriate aspects of the private interface will be included in the public website on our Tools and Resources page as part of our continuing commitment to transparency.

The goal of this project was to generate discussion and create new networks among collaborators from wide-ranging perspectives. Moving forward, we hope to continue researching, exploring, developing and implementing thoughtful and forward-thinking practices for the ethical care of human remains currently under museum stewardship in this institution and beyond it.

To access the private interactive space for symposium participants, please follow the button above.