The American Museum of Natural History is embarking on a significant overhaul of its management of around 12,000 human remains, a collection stemming from past practices that acquired skeletons from Indigenous and enslaved people, as well as the bodies of New Yorkers who died as recently as the 1940s. This new policy includes the removal of all human bones currently on public display and the enhancement of storage facilities for these remains.
Anthropologists will also engage in deeper research to ascertain the origins and identities of these remains, addressing questions about the legality and ethics of their acquisitions. The museum holds 2,200 Native American remains, which should be repatriated to their descendants according to federal law. While 1,000 have been repatriated, concerns have been raised about the pace of research into the tribal affiliations of the others.
There are also the bones of five Black adults taken from a Manhattan cemetery for enslaved people in 1903, and a "medical collection" consisting of approximately 400 remains of largely poor New Yorkers who died in the 1940s, and were initially given to medical schools before being transferred to the museum.
The effort to address these remains is part of a wider shift in the treatment of such collections by natural history museums, which are facing scrutiny for acquiring remains in the name of discredited scientific theories. Sean M. Decatur, the museum’s president, acknowledges the importance of identifying these remains and considering respectful actions in consultation with local communities.
As we witness this pivotal moment in the museum's history, we are reminded of the broader mission for reparative justice and the reckoning with the legacy of exploitation and racism that permeates many institutions. This courageous step by the American Museum of Natural History signifies a commitment to confronting the injustices of the past and fostering a more equitable and respectful future.
Link: The New York Times