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New York Museum of Natural History to Remove Human Remains from Public Displays


There are stories in the human bones of the American Museum of Natural History. They chronicle lives lived – some just decades ago, others in centuries past – in cultures around the world.

But the vast collection of thousands of skeletal parts at one of the world’s most visited museums also tells a darker story: open graves, disturbed burial grounds, and collecting practices that treated some cultures and peoples as objects at which one had to remain speechless.

The New York museum announced this month that it was removing all human remains from public displays and would change the way it maintains its collection of body parts with the aim of eventually repatriating as many as it can. could and to respectfully preserve what he could not.

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

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The museum today houses approximately 12,000 sets of remains, including bones of Native people and black slaves, often collected in the 19th and 20th centuries by researchers seeking to prove theories of racial superiority and inferiority through physical attributes.

Some of the other remains are people – probably poor or helpless – whose bodies had been used in medical schools before being donated to the museum in the 1940s.

American Museum of Natural History President Sean Decatur, who in April became the museum’s first black leader, said that for the most part, the remains in the collection were acquired without the clear consent of the dead or their descendants .

“I think it’s fair to say that none of these people left or imagined that their resting place would be in the museum collection,” he said. “And in most cases, there was also a clear power difference between those who collected and those who were collected.”

The process of removing human remains from public display will impact six of the museum’s galleries. The items removed include a musical instrument made from human bones, a skeleton from Mongolia more than a thousand years old, and a Tibetan artifact containing bones.

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The idea that human remains and objects from other cultures should be returned is not new. A U.S. law passed in 1990 created a legal process for certain indigenous tribes to recover ancestral remains from museums and other institutions. In a letter to museum staff, Decatur said about 2,200 sets of remains at the museum fall into that category.

Other museums and institutions are also struggling with this problem. At the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, for example, more than 100 human remains have been returned to affected communities. The museum is working to return four other sets of remains that do not fall under federal law.

“Fundamentally, we have a responsibility to do more than acknowledge the harm caused by historical collecting practices that treated people and cultures as objects of scientific study,” said Chris Patrello, curator of anthropology at the museum, in an email.

As of 2022, about 870,000 Native American artifacts, including remains that would have to be returned to tribes under federal law, are still in the possession of colleges, museums and other institutions across the country, according to the Associated Press .

But it’s not just the indigenous remains in museum collections that are troubling.

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

“Slavery was a violent and dehumanizing act; removing these remains from their rightful burial place ensured that the denial of basic human dignity would continue even after death,” Decatur said in his letter to museum staff.

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Historically, black graves have been subject to theft, said Lynn Rainville, an anthropology professor at Washington and Lee University. They have also been hidden or disrupted in construction and development projects.

Decatur said the American Museum of Natural History’s holdings also include about 400 bodies from four New York medical schools in the 1940s, although there is no obvious process by which the bodies used for training medical anatomy should have ended up in a museum.

One of the medical schools no longer exists; the others were connected to Columbia, Cornell, and New York University. Columbia Medical School had no comment. The other two did not respond to emails seeking information. Museum officials said they were talking with the schools and, from what they could determine, the bodies did not arrive at the institution in a nefarious manner.

“It’s one of those things that’s shocking and sort of…closer to home than an archaeological expedition looking at things over a thousand years old. But it’s a practice that was incredibly common.” at the time, Decatur. said.

Susan Lederer, professor of medical history and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine, said that as the number of medical schools increased in the 19th century and dissection became an essential part of training, schools had to find more bodies.

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States passed laws making unclaimed bodies, mostly of very poor people, available to medical schools.

“This reflects long-held assumptions about the differences between middle-class and working-class or lower-class people,” that it was considered acceptable to hand over some bodies but not others, he said. -she declared.

Practice at most medical schools changed in the second half of the 20th century for a number of reasons, including the fact that more people in the United States are willing to donate their bodies after death, she explained.

The museum’s process of determining how to handle these and other remains in storage will take some time, Decatur said. Authorities will need to determine what can be returned and to whom, as well as how to properly care for the remains that remain.


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