Published: 06-02-2021 00:00 | Updated: 28-07-2021 15:29

KI reply regarding Finnish remains in the collection

In a letter sent to Karolinska Institutet in December of 2018, the committee for the return of Finnish remains, a Swedish-Finnish activist group, demanded that Karolinska Institutet return the Finnish remains in KI's historical anatomical collection. KI has now responded to the committee's letter.

In its response to the committee, Karolinska Institutet unreservedly apologizes for the lack of ethical consideration shown by representatives of Karolinska Institutet in Finland when the remains were acquired. In the letter, the committee demanded an apology, as well as an urgent return of the Finnish remains.

KI's collection of human remains dates from the 19th century, when the collection and measurement of mainly skulls was part of the branch of science known as physical anthropology. The purpose of the collection was to map the distribution and movements of ethnic groups across the earth. Similar collections are found in many places in Europe, as well as at the universities of Uppsala and Lund in Sweden. The collection at KI comprises just over 800 individuals, most of whom are from Sweden. Today it is stored and is not used in any research or exhibition contexts.

Opportunistic and unethical excavation

The majority of the Finnish remains were collected by Gustaf Retzius and his colleagues during a trip in the summer of 1873. They then undertook excavations of desolate cemeteries, which at the time were not protected by antiquities legislation, in order to find what they considered archaeologically and anthropologically interesting remains. The excavations took place in a way that, based on the ethics of our time, is to be regarded as deeply disrespectful and unethical. Karolinska Institutet regrets the opportunism and lack of ethical considerations shown by representatives of Karolinska Institutet in Finland on this occasion.

Continued investigation

Since the 1990s, KI, following preparation and decision from the Ministry of Education, has returned remnants from the collection to indigenous peoples in Australia, New Zealand, French Polynesia and North America. The remnants follow an international practice that has developed since the 1990s regarding repatriation to indigenous peoples, who through colonialization have become oppressed minorities in their own countries. For returns to majority populations in independent nations, there is no such practice at present. Against this background, KI will continue to investigate the committee's wishes for the return of Finnish remains, in consultation with the National Heritage Board and the relevant Finnish authorities and institutions. We ask for your understanding that this work takes time.


Maria Josephson Administrative Officer