Museum to Review Its Controversial Collection of Human Bones

New York natural history museum acknowledges remains may have been collected unethically
By Evann Gastaldo,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 16, 2023 2:30 AM CDT
Museum Will Probe Its Controversial Collection of Human Bones
The David S. and Ruth L. Gottesman Research Library and Learning Center is seen during a media preview of the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation, Wednesday, April 26, 2023, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The Gilder Center opens to the public May 4.   (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

A New York City museum with a controversial, and massive, collection of human bones says it will make big changes to the way it handles the remains. The American Museum of Natural History's collection of 12,000 human remains is notable because of how recent some of those remains are, dating to less than a century ago, and in a recent announcement to staff, the president of the museum says it's time to determine just how the remains were acquired, the New York Times reports. Sean Decatur, who took the position in April, noted in his memo that "human remains collections were made possible by extreme imbalances of power," with bodies often collected unethically.

Researchers from the 19th and 20th centuries also, he notes, "used such collections to advance deeply flawed scientific agendas rooted in white supremacy," such as eugenics. Some of the most controversially collected remains in the museum's possession include the remains of 2,200 Native Americans that are being repatriated to descendants at a pace some say is too slow; remains of five Black people dug up in 1903 from a cemetery for enslaved people; and remains of 400 mostly poor New Yorkers whose unclaimed bodies were given to medical schools in the 1940s, then transferred to the museum in a process that may have been illegal.

The museum will remove all the human bones it currently has on display, and anthropologists will determine their identities and origins. The storage facilities where the museum's remains are kept will also be improved. "Figuring out the answers to exactly what we have here, and how to actually describe that as completely as we can, is something that is important to do moving forward," Decatur said. The Guardian notes other museums, including Philadelphia's Mütter Museum and Penn Museum and Harvard University's Peabody Museum, are facing similar scrutiny over their collections. See the full piece at the New York Times. (More bones stories.)

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