Biological anthropologists and anatomical collections: Reflexivity and ethical practice in mortuary spaces


Oct. 25, 2021, 11:30am to 12:30pm

Office/Remote Location

CBC C120 or Online (optional).


Please join us for a UNLV Anthropology Talk, given by Dr. Jennifer Muller. Dr. Muller is Assistant Professor at Ithaca College. There is space for a limited number of audience members to watch the livestream in-person (in CBC C120) or one can register to obtain the WebEx access link to watch online.

Biological anthropologists and anatomical collections: Reflexivity and ethical practice in mortuary spaces

Heterotopias (Foucault 1984) are real places that are separate and different from all other places within society. People must meet specific criteria to enter, or they may be forcibly placed in heterotopias. Of particular interest to bioarchaeologists is that Foucault describes cemeteries as heterotopias, with souls in crisis and bodies in deviant decay. Of course, mortuary treatments take multiple forms. Societies have purposefully relegated the skeletons of thousands of past peoples to museums and institutions. In many instances, museum collections reflect the inequity that situated bodies within these mortuary contexts. These heterotopic mortuary spaces are sites for osteological training and research for biological anthropologists. Several scholars have now addressed the formation of these collections as structural violence. The postmortem interventions of grave robbers, dissectors and collectors have been interrogated. However, interrogation of the role of the biological anthropologist and their interventions on these bodies have received little scholarly attention within the discipline. This paper suggests the need for reflexive process that focuses on biological anthropologists’ maintenance of controlled access to these spaces and the knowledge produced therein. The critical reflexivity of our power positions as biological anthropologists is a requirement for ethical research with museum and anatomical collections. Foucault noted that the function of a heterotopia could change over time. It is argued here that we may transform the museum mortuary to a space for collaboration in which biological anthropology incorporates identification as analytically viable and repatriation/rematriation and memorialization as everyday praxis.

Admission Information

A limited number of audience members can watch a livestream of the Talk in CBC C120, or one can register to receive WebEx access.

Contact Information

Peter Gray

External Sponsor

Department of Anthropology