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Professor Crisp, Kenzie Todd ’22 collaborate to deaccession biology department skeletal remains and create artistic reconstructions

Professor of Biology Kevin Crisp and biology and studio art major Kenzie Todd ’22 presented a seminar on their recent work researching the history of St. Olaf’s professionally-prepared teaching skeletons, deaccessioning the skeletal remains, and the future of biology department teaching skeletons on May 2. The deaccessioning of the skeletons — a process usually used in museum contexts to signify the official removal of an item from a certain institution’s collection — will allow the remains to be laid to rest. 

In 2015, Crisp began researching the history of the teaching skeleton trade and the ethical standards put in place for skeletal remains versus flesh cadavers. One of the purposes for deaccessioning, Crisp and Todd said, is that there cannot be two different ethical standards for treatment of human remains on the basis of tissue composition only. 

As a result of the difference in appearance between cadavers and skeletal remains, people tend to have different levels of respect for each, according to Crisp and Todd, despite both cadavers and teaching skeletons being human individuals. Consent to be used for educational purposes before death and providing the individual with appropriate burial rituals are two ways respect can be shown to human remains.

“It has been clear to me since I started teaching anatomy that students interact with the skeletons very differently compared to when they interact with the cadaver,” Crisp said. “There’s a very different thing that happens when they walk into the space that they’re clearly aware that they’re in the presence of people who are no longer with us, but are still physically there; whereas the skeletons don’t show so much of the person and are easier for students to distance themselves from.” 

Todd’s interest in medical illustration drew her to Crisp’s work. Together, Todd and Crisp began researching the process of deaccessioning St. Olaf’s teaching skeletons in the biology department. To present their research to a wider, nonscience audience, Todd created three six-foot paintings to depict what the individuals most likely looked like during their time period.

  By engaging in an analysis of the remains, Crisp and Todd sought to determine if they were the remains of indigenous folk. The purpose is to determine the right of possession to provide these individuals with the same respect as the cadaver donors. This means that at the end of the process of dissection, the individuals can be returned to the families or they can be cremated and returned free of charge through the University of Minnesota’s anatomy site at the Lakewood cemetery.

“We have really tried to talk to as many people as possible to keep this transparent and make sure that we’re doing everything we can do to do the due diligence necessary to do the right thing for these remains,” Crisp said. 

Data collection of the measurements of the teaching skeletons to determine sex and ancestry was the team’s the first step in the deaccessioning process. Historical context and archives assist in confirming or excluding possibilities. Using different bones, including the cranium, hip bones, long bone, and teeth, the age of death, diet, height, and weight can be determined to further identify the individual. Todd utilized her knowledge from working on the cadaver dissection team to further analyze the depth markers before beginning to digitalize the entire reconstruction. 

St. Olaf biology department’s deaccessioning of skeletal remains recognizes the work that needs to be done regarding the ethical treatment of teaching skeletons. 

“Across biology departments at various institutions, at various levels, there are an increasing number of biologists who feel that the ethics around these skeletons needs to be reconsidered, and they’re looking at deaccessioning their skeletal remains,” Crisp said. “There are also many who don’t see this as a problem yet.”


Disclaimer: Kenzie Todd ’22 is an Illustrator for The Olaf Messenger.


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