Institutions seeking to develop approaches for the ethical stewardship of Philippine human remains must do so in consultation with diverse communities, institutions, and expertise.

The ReConnect/ReCollect project has developed a set of Focus Group Discussion (FGD) protocols that engage diverse perspectives and voices. We chose this method for its capacity to facilitate dialogues involving diverse individuals and encourage the open exchange of ideas. We conducted the focus group sessions via videoconference (using Zoom), which allowed us to recruit participants more broadly. Conducting focus groups on Zoom has its limitations (such as Internet connectivity issues, managing varying time zones, and initial awkwardness of not meeting in person), but it has given us the insights and relationships that will guide future steps. Here we share the four focus group discussion protocols we developed so that others may adopt them for their own purpose.

Between December 2022 and June 2023, we conducted four focus group sessions centered on the collection of human remains housed at the U-M Museum of Anthropological Archaeology (UMMAA). Our interlocutors included Filipino and Indigenous culture bearers, community organizers, and experts in various fields, such as curation, repatriation, law, Philippine cultural studies, and archaeology. Our methodology centered around robust community consultation, placing diverse perspectives at the heart of our efforts.

Our research aimed first to understand the meaning of the collections for various constituencies, especially those of Filipino and Indigenous descent. We asked how we might involve and consult Indigenous communities in our efforts. We then wanted to know how existing legal, ethical, and curatorial protocols might apply to Philippine human remains at UMMAA. Finally, we wanted to consider the steps UMMAA and the University might feasibly take to further develop culturally-appropriate and historically-minded ethical and respectful approaches to the stewardship, representation, and access to Philippine human remains.

About the Human Remains in U-M’s Collections

The University of Michigan Museum of Anthropological Archaeology’s (UMMAA) largest and founding collection was collected between 1922 and 1925 when the University hired archaeologist Carl Guthe to conduct archaeological expeditions in the Philippines. The resulting collection contains archaeological material from 464 mortuary sites, a small amount of archaeological material from non-mortuary sites, and additional ethnographic material. These are not the only Philippine human remains in UMMAA’s collections, however, and there are human remains from the island of Cebu that were taken in the course of Joseph Beal Steere’s expedition in 1872. These remains were added to the University Museum’s holdings in 1876 as part of the Beal Steere Collection.

Three people looking at old maps.

PhD candidate in archaeology Nick Trudeau shows a selection of Philippine maps from UMMAA’s collection.


Map of the locations where human remains from the Philippines in University of Michigan’s collections were taken, University of Michigan Museum of Anthropological Archaeology.


Our Research Methodology: Engaging Community Voices

We organized our focus groups around specific concerns and expertise. We aimed to include diverse perspectives from Filipino, Indigenous, and Filipino diasporic communities, as well as from those who could speak to institutional capacities and protocols.

Statement of Collaboration

Exploring Ethical Stewardship of Human Remains was developed by the ReConnect/ReCollect team members whose names appear below this statement. We stress, however, that all of the work reflected on this website—indeed all of the ReConnect/ReCollect’s efforts over the last two and a half years—is the product of close collaboration between the full team. We trusted each other to take the lead on specific elements of the project, but we also knew that repairing harm was best served through group deliberation, constructive critique, regular revisions, and the invaluable intellectual and personal perspectives of each team member.

Kristi Rhead is a Ph.D. Student in Anthropology and History at the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on media, identity, and public history/anthropology on the island of Réunion, located in the Southern Indian Ocean and fully administratively integrated into France and the European Union.

Nick Trudeau is a PhD candidate in the University of Michigan Museum of Anthropological Archaeology. His research focuses on social change and the exchange of culture between Indigenous populations and Europeans in the Great Lakes Region during the 14th-17th centuries…