Human Remains Stewardship
The Museum is taking a renewed approach to the stewardship of human remains in our collection. Museum President Sean Decatur shared a letter with the Museum community in October 2023 to outline these new efforts and some of the initial steps.
Letter from President Sean Decatur to Museum Staff
Since arriving at the Museum in April, I have taken part in many discussions about the historic collections here, and in particular about our collection of human remains. These conversations had started before I arrived, and I appreciate the significant work that has gone into considering and caring for the collection over the years. The more I have learned, the more I have been strengthened in my conviction that addressing the complex legacy of the human remains collection and putting more resources toward renewing our stewardship must be a priority for our institution.
After consultation with our Board of Trustees, I am announcing two initial steps: we will begin immediately to prepare new storage to house the human remains in our collection, and we will remove exhibit elements that include human remains from 12 display cases. These range from instruments and beads made from, or incorporating, human bones to skeletons and mummies. Even in instances where the exhibit elements are cultural objects, this is the appropriate step to take while we reevaluate our stewardship of collections of remains of once-living individuals. Furthermore, yesterday the Board adopted an updated Collections Policy and repatriation procedures that recognize the return of human remains as an integral part of stewardship and, for the first time, create additional avenues to advance those efforts, in partnership with descendant communities.
Before describing the steps we are taking this month —and why — in more detail, I’d like to begin with the basic information I have learned about our collection. We have the skeletal remains of approximately 12,000 individuals in the human osteology (skeletal) collection in the Division of Anthropology. Researching its history is critical, ongoing work that is being conducted by the Museum’s Cultural Resources Office and Division of Anthropology.
About 26% of the individuals in this collection are the skeletal remains of Native Americans from within the United States, with the remains of approximately 1,200 individuals housed at the Museum on behalf of the federal government and approximately 2,200 skeletal remains managed by our Cultural Resources Office according to the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). This federal statute established a legal obligation and process by which human remains and cultural items may be returned to U.S. Native American communities. The Museum, through the work of the Cultural Resources Office, has to date repatriated approximately 1,000 individuals under NAGPRA. In addition, the remains of approximately 200 individuals have been repatriated internationally.
The other 74% of the collection represents the remains of other individuals, some from the U.S. (including some locally from New York), but the majority from around the world. While some individuals came to be a part of the collection from archaeological expeditions, others came to the Museum from a broad range of sources, including private collectors. Approximately 400 came to the Museum from local medical schools, which used the bodies of deceased individuals for anatomical study, often in training medical professionals.
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. Human remains collections were made possible by extreme imbalances of power. Moreover, many researchers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries then used such collections to advance deeply flawed scientific agendas rooted in white supremacy – namely the identification of physical differences that could reinforce models of racial hierarchy. Our Museum was the site of 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. This research is disturbing morally and flat-out wrong scientifically.
You also may have seen from a recent news story that the Museum holds the remains of five individuals believed to have been enslaved African-Americans. These remains were removed from a burial ground in the Inwood neighborhood of Manhattan during a city road construction project in 1903-1904 and accepted into the collection. Enslavement was a violent, dehumanizing act; removing these remains from their rightful burial place ensured that the denial of basic human dignity would continue even in death. Identifying a restorative, respectful action in consultation with local communities must be part of our commitment.
I’ve addressed collections, and now turn to our exhibitions. As mentioned above, we have identified exhibit elements in 12 cases in our permanent exhibition halls that include human remains. The ethics of displaying human remains are complex, and there are conflicting views: some who would argue that it is an offensive and voyeuristic practice; others who argue that there is educational value to the practice and that there are important concepts best illustrated by the examination of actual human remains. Some cultures value displaying human remains, or ethnographic objects that incorporate human remains, and encourage such displays in the service of sharing their cultural practices with others. 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. 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.
Many of you, my colleagues in the Museum, have grappled with these issues, and have advanced this work for years, and I thank you. I am looking forward to joining with you in renewed and long-term commitment to better understand our collection and to develop a comprehensive plan to guide our stewardship of ancestral remains. I recognize, along with my colleagues in senior leadership and on the Board, that this will take an investment in resources, including sufficient staffing. We must assess the needs and make the appropriate investments.
Moreover, to carry out this work with care and in authentic partnership with harmed communities, this will take time: the actions announced here are merely first steps in the journey ahead. The work ahead of us includes education, both within the Museum community and externally, making this a part of our education, exhibition, and programmatic activities. From this painful legacy, it is our responsibility to develop a new ethical framework for our urgent work in this area, to study the history of the Museum, and step by step, to begin making concrete changes.
I plan to update you regularly on our progress as we take up this work together, starting with a discussion at the all-staff meeting on October 18.
Statement from the American Museum of Natural History
We recognize an overriding ethical obligation to treat human remains with dignity and respect, as individuals once living, and we acknowledge the profound connections between living peoples and their ancestors.
This imperative shapes the Museum’s policies and practices. The Museum no longer collects human remains. Non-invasive research on the collection is permitted only after community consultation and consent, and the moratorium on destructive analysis is continuing.
We commit to the removal of human remains from public display, while continuing to display casts where appropriate to further the Museum’s education mission.
We commit as well to increasing resources for ongoing critical review of our human remains collections, including additional research on cultural affiliation. We will build on our engagements with descendant communities, working proactively to explore additional opportunities for return or shared stewardship while ensuring the highest standards of conservation and care for collections that remain at the Museum.