American Museum of Natural History Holds 12,000 Human Remains, Including Indigenous and Enslaved People

The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) recently announced in an all-staff email last week it is updating its policy on its collection of 12,000 human remains, including repatriation procedures, new storage facilities, and the removal of them from display.

Many of the skeletons the museum acquired came from Indigenous and enslaved people that had previously been buried in graves and cemeteries, according to recent reports in Hyperallergic and The New York Times. There are also the remains of hundreds of poor New Yorkers who died in the 1940s whose unclaimed bodies were given to medical schools and then transferred to the museum.

The reports follow recent investigations on the Smithsonian Institute’s collection of human brain specimens, many taken without consent; the museums and US universities which still hold the remains of approximately 100,000 Indigenous people despite a 30-year-old federal law; the Mütter Museum’s review of its collection of human remains; as well as the Penn Museum and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History each announcing policy changes on the display of human remains earlier this month.

The AMNH’s 150 years of purchases, donations, and expeditions in this area of anthropology havee been the subject of its own documents, academic papers and a New Yorker feature by Daniel Gross in 2018. However, the new reports by art crime professor Erin Thompson and Times reporter Zachary Smalls provided much more detailed information about the identities and origins of the AMNH’s collection. They include at least 60 Black New Yorkers whose bodies were dissected at nearby medical schools in the late 1940s, 92 skulls from the cemetery of the Panagia Greek Orthodox Church in Antalya, Turkey, as well as 149 Indigenous Australians.

“We must acknowledge that, with the small exception of those who bequeathed their bodies to medical schools for continued study, no individual consented to have their remains included in a museum collection,” said the email from museum president Sean Decatur, sent on October 12. “Human remains collections were made possible by extreme imbalances of power.”

Decatur’s letter acknowledged how collections of human remains were used by many researchers to advance now-debunked theories of white supremacy and eugenics. He specifically noted how the AMNH was the location for the Second Eugenics Congress in 1921, “putting our institution’s civic and scientific authority behind a pseudo-scientific, racist, and xenophobic theory that was used to promote discriminatory policies”. He also called the research “disturbing morally and flat-out wrong scientifically.”

The collection at the AMNH includes the remains of 2,200 Native Americans that are supposed to be repatriated to descendants under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA). While the museum has repatriated the remains of 1,000 people in response to the federal law, Thompson’s report in Hyperallergic said that the repatriation process was “going slowly” for 149 Indigenous individuals from Australia, and that many representatives said money was a “major factor” in the delay.

AMNH currently has three people involved in that work, but Decatur told the Times part of his initiative is to focus more resources in this area. The museum has also pledged to increasing resources for additional research on cultural affiliation as well as “additional opportunities for return or shared stewardship while ensuring the highest standards of conservation and care for collections that remain at the Museum.”.

Currently, 12 of the museum’s display cases include human remains, ranging from “instruments and beads made from, or incorporating, human bones to skeletons and mummies”. This includes the “Copper Man”, an individual who died in the 6th century after a mine shaft collapsed on him. His remains were donated to the museum in 1905 by financier J.P. Morgan, who was a member of the board of trustees at the time.

In Decatur’s letter to staff, he acknowledged the argument that the display of human remains had educational values and some cultures valued the practice. “But at this moment, given the history of our human remains collections and how much we have still to learn, removal is the right course of action,” he wrote. “None of the items on display are so essential to the goals and narrative of the exhibition as to counterbalance the ethical dilemmas presented by the fact that human remains are in some instances exhibited alongside and on the same plane as objects. These are ancestors and are in some cases victims of violent tragedies or representatives of groups who were abused and exploited, and the act of public exhibition extends that exploitation.”

Thompson told ARTnews that human remains were still on display at the museum on October 16, including “Copper Man”. When asked about this, a spokesperson from AMNH told ARTnews by email that “The removal process will start soon and is expected to be completed before the end of the year.”