Museum Statement on Eugenics

September 2021

One hundred years ago, Henry Fairfield Osborn, the then-President of the American Museum of Natural History, welcomed participants to the Museum for the Second International Eugenics Congress. Today, the Museum welcomes the opportunity to acknowledge, confront, and apologize for its role in the eugenics movement.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, eugenics was advanced by many prominent individuals and established institutions, including the American Museum of Natural History. The pseudo-science of eugenics and the ways that it has been applied against vulnerable populations are antithetical to the values, mission, and ongoing work of this Museum.

The fall 2021 conference marking the “anti-centennial” of the Second International Eugenics Congress is important not only as part of the Museum’s reckoning with its history, but also in fortifying us all to confront modern attempts to distort science to achieve non-scientific social outcomes. We hear echoes of eugenics in today’s anti-immigration rhetoric, continuing racism, anti-Semitism and other forms of religious discrimination, and gender bias. And we see the ways in which science has been manipulated to foster distrust in efforts to combat the pandemic. Untruths and misinformation, like eugenics itself, are a pernicious force that undercuts the trust in legitimate science and also undermines society at large.

Here at the Museum, we strive to build trust in science by conducting research, actively addressing the misuse of genetic and genomic data, and providing reliable scientific information to the public on such vital topics as public health, climate change, and biodiversity loss. We are working to develop educational materials about COVID-19 for students and teachers and have transformed one of our galleries into a public vaccination site.

That work will continue to be informed and strengthened by our ongoing efforts to address issues of historical colonialism in the formation of our collections and cultural representation in our halls. It is also furthered by our initiative to enhance Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion throughout our community at all levels and to better support the interests and needs of all our visitors, including those with disabilities and limited English language proficiency. This is work that cannot be completed overnight, but is progressing steadily and deliberately, and the Museum is committed to continuing this work now and going forward.

As Ida B. Wells, journalist and civil rights leader, once said: “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” Today, we say let the light shine and let authentic science be properly valued and empowered to lead us forward.