Many of the collections in European and North American museums and universities arose against the backdrop of colonialism. Many human remains and other objects were thus gathered in the context of great inequalities of power and violence. Collecting as many objects as possible for scientific purposes, especially from those "peoples" who were considered "extinct" and "primitive", was a high priority. The image of cultural and racial superiority of the colonial powers was prevalent, while indigenous groups were seen as mere "research material" and "backward". The collecting and exhibiting practices of anthropology are thus historically related to the ideology of a linear socio-cultural development of humanity. Europe was always placed at the top in this world view. Within the framework of this racist ideology and the supremacy of Europe, the collection of human remains turned the people concerned into mere objects.The German Museums Association defines circumstances of death and appropriation that are related to injustice as particularly problematic.
"An essential question in dealing with human remains is how the circumstances of death, acquisition and, in the case of the (ritual) objects mentioned above, also of creation are to be assessed in each case legally and, in particular, ethically. [...] Circumstances of creation and acquisition are particularly problematic if the person from whom the human remains originate has been wronged. The working group refers to this situation as a context of injustice." (Deutscher Museumsbund 2013: 9-10).
Various forms of colonial violence constitute such a context of injustice. Mostly, collection items were acquired under asymmetrical power relations by means of donations, purchase or exchange. However, even these seemingly harmless transactions could involve theft, extortion and unfair trade. Robbery and desecration of graves also occurred. The designation at the time of the appropriation of human remains and objects in colonial territories as "legal" and "legitimate", constitutes another act of violence. The definitions and meanings of collected "objects" were predominantly determined by European and North American scholars. The perspectives and interpretations of the people being researched or "collected" were ignored.
The colonial background of human remains in museums and collections has not been addressed for decades. They were kept unreflectively and sometimes exhibited. For some time now, there have been increasing attempts to come to terms with this colonial legacy. The essential basis for this is provenance research, the investigation of the origin of objects. Museum associations and scholars have published statements and guidelines on the ethical handling of human remains from colonial contexts of injustice. Frequent demands in these statements concern the expansion of provenance research, increased transparency with regard to the origin and the knowledge produced, and dialogue and cooperation with the societies of origin. Various approaches, such as restitution or the whereabouts of human remains, are discussed and tackled. Together with groups of origin, strategies are to be developed to contribute to coming to terms with the colonial background and illegal acquisitions.