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Human Remains Policy

"Prioritizing human dignity and the wishes of descendant communities are the governing principles behind this essential institution-wide update to the Penn Museum’s Human Remains Policy.

A comprehensive and rigorous basis for ethical stewardship and treatment of human remains, the updated policy applies to care of the collections; teaching and research; exhibition and display; and public access.

Confronting our institutional history tied to colonial collection practices requires continuous examination and assessment of our policies. It is our moral, ethical, and social responsibility."

—Christopher Woods, Williams Director of the Penn Museum

The full policy can be downloaded from here. A summary of each section is provided below.

Purpose of the Human Remains Policy

The Human Remains Policy (HRP or the Policy) provides a rigorous basis for the ethical treatment of human remains in the Penn Museum in a way that centers human dignity and considers consent of the deceased and wishes of descendant communities. The policy applies to care of the collections; teaching and research; exhibition and display; and public access.

Definition of Human Remains

For this Policy’s purposes, human remains are defined as anything that came from a person including human skeletons and partial skeletons, cremated human remains, isolated elements, human remains in archaeological assemblages co-mingled with other remains, and human remains such as human hair or bone which are a part of another object. The Policy attempts to be as detailed and as comprehensive as possible while acknowledging that it is impossible to anticipate every case or define a specific prescribed action for every situation.

Formation of a Human Remains Committee

To ensure systematic accountability and review, and to foster the development of institutional experience and understanding of potentially sensitive matters, the HRP also prescribes creating a Human Remains Committee. Its responsibilities will include reviewing matters related to the treatment of human remains in such contexts as research, teaching, and exhibitions that fall within the scope of the Policy as well as regularly stewarding the evolution of the Policy as the Museum learns from its implementation (see Appendix A of the Policy).

The Policy also mandates an introduction to Human Remains Training, ensuring that those carrying out activity within the scope of the Policy do so in a respectful manner that prioritizes human dignity, ethics, and consent (see Appendix B of the Policy).


The Museum will continue to comply with all state, federal, and international laws that relate to the acquisition of human remains. While the Museum will no longer knowingly add human remains as accessioned collections, the HRP allows for accepting transfers of human remains from institutions unable to provide the necessary stewardship of remains under their care. It also accommodates the need for temporary housing of human remains in the Museum in certain situations, subject to review.

The Museum will continue to adhere to all NAGPRA requirements and will increase staffing to support international repatriation of human remains not covered by NAGPRA. The Museum will evaluate and engage with requests from all communities, entities, or governments that connect themselves to the human remains and cultural items in the Museum's custody.


With some exceptions, the Museum will not accept or make loans of human remains. Exceptions are subject to review, but occur for purposes of repatriation or descendant community request, for research purposes as governed by the Research section of the HRP, or for transfer of stewardship.


Human remains will be stored in areas with restricted and monitored access and in a manner that aids their long-term preservation. Special storage requests from next-of-kin or community of origin will be honored subject to a feasibility assessment. The Museum will provide space for next-of-kin and descendants to access, view, and honor individuals housed in the Museum.

Review and consideration

Research of and access to human remains in the Museum will be considered on a case-by-case basis and will be subject to multiple phases of review from the Curatorial Section to the Human Remains Committee, as well as the NAGPRA and Scientific Testing Committees as appropriate. Research involving human remains must align with the University’s and Museum’s missions and practices, and cultural norms of source and/or descendant community must be appropriately considered.

Eligibility for research access

Researchers eligible to request research access to human remains are primarily limited to members of Penn Museum staff and Penn faculty or specialists such as members of Penn Medicine or Penn Dental Medicine, with provision for collaborators or supervisees of staff and faculty to request access if supported by staff or faculty sponsorship.

The HRP imposes different levels of restrictions on the use of human remains in education, understood to include K-12 programs, undergraduate and graduate University instruction, and Museum programming for its family and adult visitors and members.

K-12 and public programs

Human remains will not be included in K-12 or public programs and gallery tours of areas which contain human remains (which will always be covered) will be prefaced by a content advisory. In K-12 programs images of human remains are restricted to covered remains only, while public programs for adult audiences may contain images and scans of uncovered human remains with a content advisory and subject to review. K-12 and public programs will not take place in or have access to human remains storage areas.

University classes

Access to human remains for University classes is dependent on the level of the class and the purpose of including human remains as part of the instruction. Requests to include Museum accessioned human remains in lower-level classes are subject to review; students in lower-level classes will not handle the remains directly. Upper-level undergraduate and graduate classes may include Museum accessioned human remains following a class-use request that is also reviewed by the Human Remains Committee.

Promoting human dignity over public access

The governing principles for display are the prioritization of human dignity over public access and consideration of differing cultural or religious practice or sensitivities, ethical matters relating to provenance and collecting practices, and consent and/or source community norms relating to the treatment of human remains.

No exposed human remains will be on display

Out of respect for the deceased and consideration of visitor comfort, no exposed human remains will be considered for display. Human remains which are fully wrapped or enclosed may be considered for display if the stated governing principles are fulfilled and dependent on the condition of the human remains.

Signage and galleries

Human remains will be treated with respect throughout the process and signage will be provided to instruct visitors on respectful behavior as well as to advise of the presence of human remains in a display. Galleries will be planned to ensure that sensitive visitors are able to avoid human remains while experiencing the majority of the Museum.

Images, video, and reproductions

Images or video of human remains may be included in exhibits with careful consideration of the source, the question of consent, and the nature of the depictions. Use of reproductions in lieu of human remains will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis by the exhibition team prior to review by the Human Remains Committee. Images of human remains will not be used on the general website, social media, or for marketing purposes. The Museum will not normally approve the use of images of human remains for media requests.