NYC’s Museum of Natural History to pull human remains from public display

The human bones at the American Museum of Natural History tell a story. They tell of lives lived in cultures around the world, some just a few decades ago and some centuries past.

But the vast collection of thousands of skeletons in one of the world’s most visited museums is a collection of open graves, destroyed burial sites, and a collection that treats some cultures and peoples as objects to behold. It also tells dark stories.

This month, the New York Museum will remove all human remains from public view and begin collecting human remains with the aim of eventually repatriating as many remains as possible and respectfully storing those that cannot. announced that it would change its management method.

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This photo shows the skeletal remains of a warrior discovered in Outer Mongolia in 1925 on display at the American Museum of Natural History before being removed from public view. ((AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews))

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The museum currently houses approximately 12,000 remains, including those of Native Americans and enslaved Black people. These remains were collected in large numbers during the 19th and 20th centuries by researchers seeking to prove theories about racial superiority and inferiority based on physical characteristics.

Some of the other bodies were probably those of people who were poor or helpless, and their remains were once used at a medical school before being donated to the museum in the 1940s.

American Museum of Natural History Director Sean Decatur, who became the museum’s first black leader in April, said most of the remains in the collection were obtained without the explicit consent of the dead or their descendants.

“I think it’s fair to say that none of these people thought or imagined that their final resting place would be included in a museum collection,” he says. “And in most cases there was also a clear power differential between the gatherer and the gathered.”

The process of removing bodies from public view will affect six of the museum’s galleries. Objects to be removed include musical instruments made from human bones, Mongolian human bones more than 1,000 years old, and Tibetan artifacts that incorporate bones.

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The idea that human remains and artifacts removed from other cultures should be returned is not new. A U.S. law passed in 1990 created a legal process for some Native American tribes to retrieve the remains of their ancestors from museums and other facilities. In a letter to museum officials, Decatur said about 2,200 remains at the museum fall into that category.

Other museums and institutions are grappling with this issue as well. For example, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science has returned more than 100 bodies to associated communities. The museum is working to return four other sets of remains that do not fall under federal law.

“It goes beyond acknowledging the harm caused by history-gathering practices that essentially treat people and cultures as objects of scientific study,” Chris Patrello, the museum’s curator of anthropology, said in an email. I have a responsibility.”

As of 2022, an estimated 870,000 Native American artifacts, including remains that should be returned to tribes under federal law, are still in the collections of universities, museums and other institutions across the United States, according to the Associated Press. That’s what it means.

But it’s not just indigenous remains housed in museums that are in trouble.

Decatur said some of the remains in the museum are believed to be those of five black people whose bones were removed from a burial ground in northern Manhattan during a road construction project in the early 1900s. .

“Slavery was a violent and inhumane act,” Decatur wrote in a letter to museum officials. “Removing these remains from their rightful burial places is a denial of basic human dignity.” will continue even after death.”

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Historically, black graves have been robbed, said Lynn Rainville, an anthropology professor at Washington and Lee University. Construction and development projects were also covered up or obstructed.

Decatur said that although there is no clear process by which bodies used for medical anatomy education should end up in museums, the American Museum of Natural History’s collection includes four He said the collection also included about 400 bodies from medical universities.

One of the medical schools no longer exists. The rest were connected to Columbia University, Cornell University, and New York University. Columbia University School of Medicine had no comment. The remaining two did not respond to emails requesting information. Museum officials said they are in discussions with the school and that, as far as they can confirm, the bodies did not come to the facility in any heinous manner.

“It’s unpleasant, and in some ways…more familiar than an archaeological expedition looking at something more than 1,000 years old, but it’s an incredibly common practice at the time,” Decatur said. he said. He said.

As the number of medical schools increased in the 19th century and dissection became an important part of training, schools needed to discover more cadavers, said Susan Lederer, a professor of medical history and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine. He said there is.

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States passed laws to provide medical schools with unclaimed bodies, primarily those of the very poor.

“This reflects long-held assumptions about the differences between middle-class people and working-class and lower-class people,” he said, adding that it is acceptable to extradite certain groups, but not others. He said he considered it a refusal.

Practice at most medical schools changed in the late 20th century for a variety of reasons, she said, including an increase in the number of people in the United States willing to donate their bodies after death.

The process of figuring out what the museum will do with these and other remains in storage will take time, Decatur said. Authorities need to decide what can be returned to whom and how to properly dispose of the remaining remains.

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