Guidelines for use of remains published

University of Otago Medical School senior lecturer Dr Jon Cornwall. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
University of Otago Medical School senior lecturer Dr Jon Cornwall. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Recent public scandals surrounding the use of human remains by museums and private institutions, coupled with an increasing community awareness around accountability for their use, has forced scholars to confront the ethical and moral concerns associated with these collections.

This includes specific focus on the acquisition, storage, use, and disposition of human remains, which are often collected with no consent and with little concern for the individual or their respective cultural practices around death and postmortem treatment.

University of Otago Medical School senior lecturer Dr Jon Cornwall said guidance for the appropriate management of these collections had been lacking.

Dr Cornwall is a lead author of what is the first set of specific guidelines for managing legacy anatomical collections.

His work in medical education at the university and his research are focused on the ethical use of bodies donated to science.

He also led the development of global guidelines, released last year, for the acquisition and use of images from bodies donated to science.

Dr Cornwall said the recently published recommendations filled what was "a pretty big gap" in the anatomy, bioanthropology, forensics, pathology and archaeology departments across the world with human specimens of unknown origin.

"One of the big issues we hear from collection custodians time and again is, ‘what should I be doing with the collection I oversee?’.

"We hope these recommendations are useful for those people."

The recommendations were the result of a two-year international project and they have been adopted by the American Association for Anatomy — the largest association of anatomists in the world.

They provide an ethical foundation and practical considerations for the use, storage and divesting of legacy collections of human tissues.

Dr Cornwall said the guidance would help institutions establish appropriate management and oversight, investigate provenance, and engage with their communities.

The cultural and ethical position of local communities must be considered so outcomes, particularly around divesting collections, reflect what works best for each community, he said.

As the knowledge and resources of institutions and curators varied, the key issue was to "try to follow the spirit, if not the letter, of the guidelines".

He said the recommendations for legacy anatomical collections would be regularly reviewed and would likely change over time as ethical principles concerning human tissue evolved.

At present, they represented best practice and could help curators, researchers and teachers as they considered the future of the collections in their care.

"The recommendations will be welcomed as providing some guidance and illuminating all the issues that need to be considered."