American Association for Anatomy Policy on Legacy Anatomical Collections

Historically, anatomical collections of human remains have been a cornerstone of anatomy education and research. Their past and potential future contributions to anatomical knowledge and professional development are significant, and, in many cases, they represent an irreplaceable historical archive. The American Association for Anatomy has adopted this Policy on Legacy Anatomical Collections to provide clear expectations on the ethics of holding, using, and caring for legacy anatomical collections. The evolution of expectations for informed consent as well as awareness of the impact of colonialization and structural racism have transformed current ethical standards. Therefore, a consensus on acceptable practice will help to avoid harm to the living and loss of public trust caused by both intentional and inadvertent misuse of legacy anatomical collections. The American Association for Anatomy expects its members to demonstrate ethical treatment of legacy anatomical collections and to adhere to this Policy. 

Legacy anatomical collections are a subset of anatomical collections. They are defined as historical collections containing human tissue, including human remains where provenance is unknown or unclear or the informed consent of the individual has not been determined. Common examples are collections in Anatomy or Anthropology departments at academic institutions and museums.

Expectations of ethical treatment by custodians of legacy anatomical conditions are framed by three guiding principles. 

  • First, the custodian must be aware of and adhere to context-specific local and national laws.
  • Second, the custodian should recognize that ethical treatment conveys respect, preserves the dignity of humans, and acknowledges the presumed or manifest wishes of the individual and their communities.
  • Third, the custodian should be aware of potential harm to the legacy of the individual and to others that may result from the custodian’s actions or lack of action.

Actions consistent with ethical treatment of legacy anatomical collections are required in three domains: i) inventory; ii) use or storage; and iii) potential disposition. 

Inventory. Custodians of legacy anatomical collections have a duty to be proactively aware of the human remains in their care. Ethical awareness includes a documented inventory of the contents of the legacy anatomical collection. Elements of the inventory and the level of specificity should be as detailed as possible. Minimum requirements include a description of the material, provenance, and assignment of unique identifiers. Derivative products (e.g., images, models, genomic data) should be included in the inventory. Soliciting institutional approval and/or support for the inventory process (e.g., from department chairs or college deans) is strongly recommended. Transparency and collaborative approaches to the inventory process are strongly encouraged.

Use or Storage. Limits on the ethical use of legacy anatomical collections reflect a balance between the dignity and autonomy of the individual and the potential benefit of use for society. Use of legacy anatomical collections for education and research provides a benefit to society. Dignity is maintained where the use is respectful and acknowledges the humanity of the remains. Based on the history of structural racism, economic inequalities, and exploitation of vulnerable populations in the creation of legacy anatomical collections, the provenance of the collection should be a factor in making any determination about presumed intent of an individual. Long-term storage should be treated as a form of use, and should also adhere to expectations of respect, care, and acknowledgement. Institutional oversight committees, including representatives of the local and descendant communities, are strongly encouraged as a means of providing objective review of plans for ethical use and storage.

Potential Disposition: In the event that use or storage of all or part of a legacy anatomical collection does not meet ethical standards, the custodian should consider disposition of that material. Potential forms of disposition include repatriation, transfer to other collections, and final disposition. Institutional support and/or approval should be obtained. Consultation with communities of care (e.g., descendant communities) is strongly encouraged as part of any decision-making process.