AAA Condemns Handling of Philadelphia Bombing Victims’ Human Remains

The AAA strongly condemns the use of Black children’s remains for a course being taught online at Princeton University by an affiliated faculty at the Penn Museum. Such a use clearly violates the principles of ethical conduct established by the AAA. The bedrock principle of AAA’s standards is the ethical obligation to do no harm, which includes avoiding harm to dignity, and to bodily and material well-being that might result either directly or indirectly from our research and teaching.

We are deeply troubled by the circumstances that have come to light in the past week concerning the manner in which researchers have handled human remains from the 1985 police bombing of the MOVE organization in West Philadelphia. In the bombing, eleven people were killed, including five children. Some of the bombing victims’ remains were held in the collections of the Penn Museum, and used in a Princeton University course taught online through Coursera. Although the identities of the persons whose remains are featured in this course are uncertain, what is clear is that their surviving family members were not consulted about using the remains in this way.

There are several precedents for establishing informed consent regarding research on skeletal remains established decades ago, first in 1990 through the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (with specific reference to Native Americans), and subsequently with work that began in the 1990s involving the African Burial Ground in New York. Clearly the current circumstances fly in the face of AAA principles of professional responsibility and established precedent.

The Association urges anthropologists to familiarize themselves with the principles of responsible professional conduct, applicable laws, and standards of free, prior, and fully informed consent, and insists that the universities, their affiliated organization, and their faculty and staff involved in this recent activity reach out to the surviving family members to determine and subsequently respect their wishes as to the remains of their loved ones.