Last week, staffers at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) received an email from President Sean M. Decatur announcing that the institution will no longer display human remains, its collection of which stands at 12,000. As Erin L. Thompson’s new investigation for Hyperallergic reveals, AMNH’s policy overhaul comes after more than a century of the museum acquiring human bodies, often in contexts of colonial violence and without consent. Many of the descendants of these individuals are unaware of their ancestors’ whereabouts to this day.
Thompson, a professor of art crime at the City University of New York’s John Jay College, set out to research the identities of the people whose remains are housed in the museum. These identities, she found, are mostly unknown to the public, in no small part because the AMNH has made it difficult to access this information. She relied on largely forgotten public records, like AMNH’s own annual reports dating back decades, as well as interviews with nearly a dozen current and former museum staffers who spoke on condition of anonymity.
While the fact that AMNH houses the bones of 2,200 Native American individuals is well-documented, the remainder of its human remains collection has “so far escaped much scrutiny,” Thompson writes. Among the key takeaways of the article is the fact that the museum holds the remains of dozens of Black New Yorkers, part of a collection of approximately 400 bodies received from regional medical schools in the mid-1940s. Many of bodies were unclaimed; some came from impoverished families who could not afford their burial. This discovery is critical because it actively pushes back against the harmful misconception that the institutional practice of acquiring human remains is but a frowned-upon blip in the past — the same fallacy long used to explain away museums’ contributions to the advancement of pseudo-scientific theories like eugenics and racial superiority.
In a statement on its new policy, shared with Hyperallergic, the AMNH also acknowledges holding the remains of five African-American people who are believed to have been enslaved. These bodies were taken from a burial ground in the Inwood neighborhood of Manhattan during a construction project in the early 1900s, an act that Decatur admits deprived these individuals of “basic human dignity.” As part of its policy overhaul, the statement says, the museum has adopted repatriation procedures that “recognize the return of human remains as an integral part of stewardship” and will prepare new storage to house them.
Also detailed in Thompson’s piece are the disturbing ways in which many of these bodies were acquired. For example, the AMNH holds the remains of at least 75 Indigenous individuals from South Africa and at least 277 skulls from the continent as a whole; 42 of these came from Robert Broom, an anthropologist who in the late 19th century took the bodies of Indigenous refugees who died in Port Nolloth after escaping a drought. The museum also funded expeditions to source specimens, such as one that resulted in 500 bodies and over 10,000 artifacts taken from a site adjacent to the Native Village of Point Hope in Alaska between 1939 and 1941. A Point Hope elder Thompson interviewed said he was familiar with the history of the expedition, but he did not know that the Ipiutak remains taken from the region were housed at the New York museum.
Indeed, the most illuminating piece of this story can be found in the testimonies of members of descendant communities, some of whom only recently learned that their ancestors’ remains are held at the AMNH. The catalogue of human remains in the museum’s biological anthropology collection is not currently available to the public, and descendants who are aware of the holdings often find repatriation efforts stymied by lack of funds and other hurdles. What Thompson’s article makes clear is that the fact that many of these bodies have not been claimed cannot be invoked as an argument for failing to return them.
We encourage you to read “A New York Museum’s House of Bones” to glean a more complete picture of the AMNH’s collection of human remains — and why this conversation matters so much today.