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Skeletons on the Shelves: Museums’ Slow Return of Indigenous Remains

1921 view of the Smithsonian's Museum of the American Indian - Heye Foundation (photo by N. L. Stebbins, via Smithsonian Institution/Flickr)
1921 view of the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian – Heye Foundation (photo by N. L. Stebbins, via Smithsonian Institution/Flickr)

Active repatriation of indigenous remains in museums only gathered serious momentum in the 1980s. That is why Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s demand in August that London’s Natural History Museum return skulls of men believed to have been killed fighting against 19th-century British colonizers is important.

As the Guardian reported, Mugabe stated:

The first chimurenga leaders, whose heads were decapitated by the colonial occupying force, were then dispatched to England, to signify British victory over, and subjugation of, the local population. […] Surely, keeping decapitated heads as war trophies, in this day and age, in a national history museum, must rank among the highest forms of racist moral decadence, sadism, and human insensitivity.

In a statement, the Natural History Museum did not confirm that it has skulls, explaining:

The NHM cares for 20,000 human remains in its collection. They are referred to by scientists both at the museum and internationally for research. We have a policy of considering formal requests for return of human remains to their places of origin, under the provisions of Section 47 of the Human Tissue Act 2004, and we have been involved in a series of significant repatriations. This is a thorough process that involves establishing the correct provenance of remains based on complex historical sources. It is not yet clear whether any remains in the museum collection are related to the events, places, or people referred to in president Mugabe’s speech this week.

Repatriation, even in 2015, remains difficult, both for indigenous people working through the bureaucratic steps to secure the return of bones and skeletons, and for the museums having to navigate the legal challenges imposed by artifacts dating from a very different era of collecting. For example, earlier this year the chief of the Miawpukek First Nation asked the National Museum of Scotland to return remains of two 19th-century Beothuk people exhumed from their burial sites. The case remains unresolved.

Peruvian mummy bundles and mummy from a 1911 'General guide to the exhibition halls of the American Museum of Natural History' (via Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr)
Peruvian mummy bundles and mummy from a 1911 ‘General guide to the exhibition halls of the American Museum of Natural History’ (via Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr)

A century ago, human remains of indigenous people around the world were dug up, sold, traded, severed into parts to make souvenirs, and placed in museums with no consideration for their humanity. Victorians threw mummy unwrapping parties and major European cities hosted “human zoos” where indigenous people from Africa, Asia, and Oceania lived in replicas of their villages. (The abandoned structures of one of these, dating from 1907, still stand in Paris.) Consider this note from the 1887 Hints for the preservation of specimens of natural history from the Australian Museum: “Skeletons of Aborigines are much wanted … authentic skulls may be obtained from the graves of the natives of each tribe.” However, since 1991 the Australian Museum, like many museums around the world, has instituted a serious indigenous repatriation program.

1911 map of the American Museum of Natural History indicating "mummy of a copper miner" and "shrunken human heads" in the "South American Indians" gallery (via Internet Archive Book Images)
1911 map of the American Museum of Natural History indicating “mummy of a copper miner” and “shrunken human heads” in the “South American Indians” gallery (via Internet Archive Book Images) (click to enlarge)

To sum up all the recent returns would be a harrowing litany. To cite a few: last year the Field Museum in Chicago returned the remains of three Tasmanian Aboriginal people; in 2011 the Natural History Museum in London returned the skeletal remains of 138 people to the Torres Strait Islanders in Australia; and in 2008, the remains of 180 people from a bulldozed ancient mound were returned to the Onondaga Nation by the New York State Museum. In 2013, the remains of Julia Pastrana, held at the University of Oslo, were finally buried. Pastrana was exhibited as a human freak in the 19th century due to her hypertrichosis terminalis condition that covered her face in hair; her mummified body was toured after her death and traded hands as an oddity. In 2002, the remains of Sarah Baartman were interred in South Africa after being on display for decades at the Museum of Man in Paris. Like Pastrana, Baatman had been exhibited as a 19th-century spectacle during her lifetime, labeled the “Hottentot Venus” for her reportedly round buttocks and elongated genitalia.

When the US Congress established the National Museum of the American Indian in 1989, the Smithsonian made it an institutional policy to return human remains, and sorting through their collections revealed fragments like the brain of a Yahi Indian named Ishi, who lived out his last days as a sort of display at the University of California’s Museum of Anthropology in San Francisco. His brain was finally repatriated in August of 2000. And in 1993, the skeleton of an Inuit man brought to the American Museum of Natural History by explorer Robert Peary was finally returned to Greenland for burial. The man’s son, Minik, had traveled with his father to the museum and witnessed a fake funeral in Central Park. When Minik found out about the deception, he spent years attempting to reclaim his father’s remains until his death in 1918.

Part of the problem is that only recently have laws been implemented to make repatriation easier. New legislation includes the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in the US, and the 2004 Human Tissues Act in the UK. Human remains on display in museums are not exclusively those of indigenous people. There are many cases like that of the 18th-century “Irish Giant” Charles Byrne, whose body was taken by surgeon John Hunter without permission, and which is now a centerpiece of the museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. However, it is overwhelmingly the case that the bones held in museum collections are those of people from indigenous populations. One could argue that they are just objects now, and essential for scientific study, but that misses the larger point that keeping them as pieces in a collection affirms a history of dehumanization and oppression.

An American Indian display being relocated during the Field Columbian Museum's move in 1920 (via Field Museum Library/Flickr)
An American Indian display being relocated during the Field Columbian Museum’s move in 1920 (via Field Museum Library/Flickr)
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