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Executive summary of the HOME project

HOME: Human remains Origin(s) Multidisciplinary Evaluation

Starting in December 2019, the “HOME: Human Remains Origin(s) Multidisciplinary Evaluation” project has been granted funding for a duration of 2 years, focusing on historical collections of human remains in a network of seven institutional partners. Through the BRAIN-be 2.0, Pillar 2 "Heritage Science" call, the Belgian Science Policy Office (BELSPO) provided funding for provenance research. The call "Heritage science" concerns scientific research in support of  federal - cultural, scientific and historical - heritage, particularly that of the Belgian Federal Scientific Institutions (FSIs).


Background to the project

Public awareness has only recently increased on the subject of historical collections of human remains in Belgium which have been the subject of scientific and provenance research for decades. Scientific publications, exhibitions, conferences and press articles have recently questioned the ethics of the presence of human remains in the Belgian Federal Heritage, and the way in which some of these remains were appropriated during the colonial era. Questions were raised in the Belgian Senate in 2016 on the existence of these collections. The Secretary of State of the Federal Science Policy proposed the creation of an “ad hoc” experts’ group on the question of repatriation of human remains in 2018. This was followed by resolutions by the Federal Parliament and the Brussels Parliament in 2019 requiring an interdisciplinary working group to be set up to look at possible repatriation and an inventory and comprehensive study to be performed on the cultural objects, art and human remains, which are part of Belgium’s museums collections. 


Belgian context

Belgian Federal Scientific Institutions (FSIs), universities and private entities house human remains from many different geographical origins, periods and contexts. Some of these human remains were discovered in archaeological excavations. Others were obtained by colonial officers and doctors, members of scientific societies and museums staff with the aim of creating osteological collections of humans from different geographical and ethnic origins. Some of these remains were appropriated in the colonial era in very problematic circumstances and in some cases remains were used to classify human types and to establish a hierarchy of "human races" ideologically motivated on the basis of physical characteristics. The current state of affairs can be summarised as follows: 


  • There is no policy or best practice in Belgium on how to manage human remains collections (both physical and digitised - as many of the human remains collections in the FSI’s either have been or are in the process of being digitised).

  • There is also no policy or best practice on what to do in the event of repatriation requests or even how to consider the legal status of these remains. 


Objectives of HOME

The objectives of HOME project are to evaluate the historical, scientific, legal and ethical background of the human remains housed by the Belgian FSIs, as well as those hosted in other public, academic and private collections in Belgium. This will include studying all relevant collections, archives and documentation to examine how they were acquired and if there have been any previous repatriation requests. This also implies looking at how the remains contribute to an understanding of past ways of life, both culturally and biologically. The documentation associated with the remains will further provide important insights into the histories of these diverse remains. Part of this study will include the history of colonisation and being colonised. 

The inventories and research on the human remains and documentation will be made available to help inform policy for setting out the best management of the physical and virtual collections by using facts and informed arguments based on the collections and provenance research. We will take into account multi vocal opinions on the overall collections. We will also look at specific case studies in order to analyse different management outcomes for the collections. This will be done in dialogue with all stakeholders, including family members and experts from the countries of origin, but also working with different institutions and governmental organisations. 

Comparisons will be made with situations in other countries. Since several decades, countries like the USA, France, Germany, Canada, UK, Switzerland and Australia have managed specific cases of restitution and can provide useful insights for Belgium. In some of these countries restitution actions have been undertaken in response to specific requests from family members or from a state to state request. These cases have often led to changes in the law to allow for the restitution of human remains. This comparative study will serve as an orientation for the management of collections in Belgium where there has never been a repatriation of human remains from state to state, in part because there is currently no legal  framework.


HOME Partners

The selected consortium is composed of 7 partners, 4 Federal Scientific Institutions: Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS) (who is the Coordinator of the project), Royal Museums of Art and History (RMAH), Royal Museum of Central Africa (RMCA), Nationaal Instituut voor Criminalistiek en Criminologie (NICC) and 3 Universities: Université Saint-Louis – Bruxelles, (USL-B) Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) and the University of Montreal (UdeM).

The HOME project involves a large multidisciplinary network which combines different disciplines represented by the partners:

  • Physical or bio-anthropologists will produce inventories of human remains collections and the associated archives housed by FSIs and other major academic and private collections. This will provide an overview of the human remains collections housed in Belgium. They will also evaluate the relevance of such collections for present day research questions in bio-anthropology.

  • Historians will focus on provenance research, on how human remains were acquired, by whom, when and in what circumstances.

  • Social anthropologists will develop a network and ensure communication with specialists and different communities in the countries of origin: what are the opinions in these countries on repatriation of human reamins and on the issue of family and community members? 

  • Geneticists will investigate the possibilities and limits of the identification of individual’s remains with their families using genetic methods.

  • Law specialists will analyse the legal aspects linked to the project, such as the present status of human remains in public and private collections, the legal background of colonisation, in Belgium and abroad, and the protection of personal data in case of repatriation  requests. They will also provide an overview of the existing legal framework in Belgium, detect the main gaps and offer suggestions for enabling/facilitating the repatriation of human remains. 

  • Computer scientists will look at the possibilities of virtual repatriation and the sharing of digital data (3D models and documentation). 


Expected Outcomes of the project

The HOME project will result in a multidisciplinary evaluation of the historical collections of human remains in Belgium, particularly in the FSIs. The deliverables of the project will include inventories of the collections and associated documents in the different institutions. The reports will also advise on how to best manage the diverse human remains collections in Belgium as well as propose management scenarios in response to existing and future requests of repatriation.

At the end of the project, a public conference is scheduled to be held on the historical collections of human remains and the question of repatriation, presenting results from the project in support of the debate of political and societal stakeholders, and in order to orient future policy in an informed way in the future.


Access to the project documents