Museums store human remains in spaces colloquially known as bone rooms”

What Should Museums Do With the Bones of the Enslaved?
by Jennifer Schuessler  /  April 20, 2021

“The Morton Cranial Collection, assembled by the 19th-century physician and anatomist Samuel George Morton, is one of the more complicated holdings of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Consisting of some 1,300 skulls gathered around the world, it provided the foundation for Morton’s influential racist theories of differences in intelligence among races, which helped establish the now-discredited “race science” that contributed to 20th century eugenics. In recent years, part of the collection was prominently displayed in a museum classroom, a ghoulish object lesson in an infamous chapter of scientific history.

Last summer, after student activists highlighted the fact that some 50 skulls had come from enslaved Africans in Cuba, the museum moved the displayed skulls into storage with the rest of the collection. And last week, shortly after the release of outside research indicating roughly 14 other skulls had come from Black Philadelphians taken from pauper’s graves, the museum announced that the entire collection would be opened up for potential “repatriation or reburial of ancestors,” as a step toward “atonement and repair” for past racist and colonialist practices. The announcement was the latest development in a highly charged conversation about African-American remains in museum collections, especially those of the enslaved. In January, the president of Harvard University issued a letter to alumni and affiliates acknowledging that the 22,000 human remains in its collections included 15 from people of African descent who may have been enslaved in the United States, and pledging to review its policies of “ethical stewardship.”

And now, that conversation may be set to explode. In recent weeks, the Smithsonian Institution, whose National Museum of Natural History houses the nation’s largest collection of human remains, has been debating a proposed statement on its own African-American remains. Those discussions, according to portions of an internal summary obtained by The New York Times, have involved people who have long prioritized repatriation efforts as well as those who take a more traditional view of the museum’s mission to collect, preserve and study artifacts, and who view repatriations as potential losses to science. In an interview last week, Lonnie G. Bunch III, the secretary of the Smithsonian, declined to characterize the deliberations but confirmed the museum was developing new guidance, which he said would be undergirded by a clear imperative: “to honor and remember.” “Slavery is in many ways the last great unmentionable in American discourse,” he said. “Anything we can do to both help the public understand the impact of slavery, and find ways to honor the enslaved, is at the top of my list.”

“The anthropologist Samuel George Morton began collecting the skulls in the 1830s, as part of an effort to prove differences in intelligence across races.”

Any new policy, Dr. Bunch said, would build on existing programs for Native American remains. It could involve not just the return of remains to direct descendants, but possibly to communities, or even reburial in a national African-American burial ground. And the museum, he said, would also strive to tell fuller stories of individuals whose remains stay in the collection. “It used to be that scholarship trumped community,” he said. “Now, it’s about finding the right tension between community and scholarship.” The quantity of enslaved and other African-American remains in museums may be modest compared with the estimated 500,000 Native American remains in U.S. collections, which were scooped up from burial grounds and 19th-century battlefields on what Samuel J. Redman, an associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, termed “an industrial scale.”

“A page from from Morton’s “Crania Americana,” outlining a supposed hierarchy of intelligence based on skull size, with Europeans on top.”

But Dr. Redman, the author of “Bone Rooms,” a history of remains collecting by museums, said the moves by Harvard, Penn and especially the Smithsonian could represent a “historical tipping point. It puts into shocking relief our need to address the problem of the historical exploitation of people of color in the collecting of their objects, their stories and their bodies,” he said. The complexities around African-American remains — who might claim them? how do you determine enslaved status? — are enormous. Even just counting them is a challenge. According to an internal Smithsonian survey that has not previously been made public, the 33,000 remains in its storerooms include those from roughly 1,700 African-Americans, including an estimated several hundred who were born before 1865, and so may have been enslaved.

“Morton’s work helped establish the dubious “race science” that flourished in the 19th century and went on to contribute to 20th century eugenics.”

Some remains come from archaeological excavations. But the majority are from individuals who died in state-funded institutions for the poor, whose unclaimed bodies ended up in anatomical collections that were later acquired by the Smithsonian. In addition to the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which requires museums to return remains to tribes or lineal descendants that request them, the Smithsonian allows remains from named individuals of any race to be claimed by descendants.

“Every cranium in the collection is meticulously labeled with the consecutive catalogue number assigned at the Academy of Natural Sciences, as well as details of the geographic location in which it was collected. In some cases, like the one illustrated here, the person who supplied Morton with the specimen is also listed.”

While many African-American individuals in the anatomical collections are named, none have ever been reclaimed, according to the natural history museum. Kirk Johnson, the museum’s director, said that the anatomical collections, while disproportionately gathered from the poor and marginalized, included a cross-section of society in terms of age, sex, race, ethnicity and cause of death, which had made them extremely useful for forensic anthropologists and other researchers. But when it comes to African-American remains, a broader approach to repatriation — including a more expansive notion of “ancestor” and “descendant” — may be justified.

“We’ve all had a season of becoming more enlightened about structural racism and anti-Black racism,” he said. “At the end of the day,” he added, “it’s a matter of respect.” Dr. Bunch, the Smithsonian’s first Black secretary, said he hoped its actions would provide a model for institutions across the country. Some who have studied the history of the trade in Black bodies say such guidance is sorely needed. “It would be wonderful to have an African-American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act,” said Daina Ramey Berry, a professor of history at the University of Texas and author of “The Price for Their Pound of Flesh,” a study of the commodification of enslaved bodies from birth to death.

“We’re finding evidence of enslaved bodies used at medical schools throughout the nation,” she said. “Some are still on display at universities. They need to be returned.” Penn’s Morton collection vividly embodies both the sordid side of the enterprise, and the way the meanings of collections change. Morton, a successful doctor who was an active member of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, has sometimes been called the founder of American physical anthropology. He was a proponent of the theory of polygenesis, which held that some races were separate species, with separate origins. In books like the lavishly illustrated “Crania Americana,” from 1839, he drew on skull measurements to outline a proposed hierarchy of human intelligence, with Europeans on top and Africans in the United States at the bottom.

Morton’s skull collection was said to be the first scholarly anatomical collection in the United States and, at the time, the largest. But after his death in 1851, it fell into obscurity, even as his racist ideas about differences in intelligence remained influential. In 1966, the collection was relocated to the Penn Museum, from the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. And it quickly became a useful tool for all sorts of scientific research — including studies aimed at debunking the racist ideas it had helped create. In a famous 1978 paper (later adapted for his book “The Mismeasure of Man”), the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould argued that Morton’s racist assumptions had led him to make incorrect measurements — thus turning Morton into a symbol not just of racist ideas, but of how bias can affect the seemingly objective procedures of science.

Gould’s analysis of Morton’s measurements has itself been hotly disputed. But in recent years, the appropriateness of possessing the skulls at all has been sharply questioned by campus and local activists, particularly after student researchers connected with the Penn & Slavery Project drew attention to the remains of the enslaved Cubans. Christopher Woods, who became the museum’s director earlier this month, said the new repatriation policy (which was recommended by a committee) would not change the collection’s status as an active research source. Although there has been no access to the actual skulls since last summer, legitimate researchers can examine 3-D scans of the entire collection, including those of 126 Native Americans that have already been repatriated.

“The collection was put together for nefarious purpose in the 19th century, to reinforce white supremacist racial views, but there’s still been good research done on that collection,” Dr. Woods said. When it comes to repatriation, he said, the moral imperative is clear, even if the specific course of action may not be. For the skulls of Black Philadelphians taken from pauper’s graves (a major source for cadavers of all races at the time), he said the hope is they can be reburied in a local African-American cemetery. The enslaved remains from Cuba, however, would require future research and possibly testing, as well as a search for an appropriate repatriation site, possibly in Cuba or West Africa, where most of the individuals were likely born. The Black remains may have become a particularly urgent issue, he said. But repatriation requests for any skulls would be considered. “This is an ethical question,” he said. “We need to consider the wishes of the communities from whence these people came.”

“This clay facial reconstruction of Kennewick Man, carefully sculpted around the morphological features of his skull, suggests how he may have looked alive nearly 9,000 years ago.”

Kennewick Man will be reburied, but quandaries around human remains won’t
by Samuel Redman  /  May 19, 2016

‘A mysterious set of 9,000-year-old bones, unearthed nearly 20 years ago in Washington, is finally going home. Following bitter disputes, five Native American groups in the Pacific Northwest have come together to facilitate the reburial of an individual they know as “Ancient One.” One of the most complete prehistoric human skeletons discovered in North America, “Kennewick Man” also became the most controversial.

Two teenagers searching out a better view of a Columbia River speedboat race in 1996 were the first to spot Kennewick Man’s remains. Since then, the bones have mostly been stored away from public view, carefully preserved in museum storerooms while subject to hotly contested legal battles. Some anthropologists were eager to scientifically test the bones hoping for clues about who the first Americans were and where they came from. But many Native Americans hesitated to support this scientific scrutiny (including tests which permanently destroy or damage the original bone), arguing it was disrespectful to their ancient ancestor. They wanted him laid to rest. This high-profile discovery served as an important, if maddening, test case for a significant new law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). It aimed to address the problematic history behind museum human remains collections.

First it mandated inventories – many museums, in fact, were unaware how large their skeletal collections really were. Then, in certain cases, it called for returning skeletons and mummies to their closest descendant group. Since NAGPRA passed in 1990, the National Park Service estimates over 50,000 sets of human remains have been repatriated in the United States. The legal framework fits well in cases where ancestry could be determined – think remains found on a specific 19th-century battlefield – but other instances became more contentious. Scientists sometimes argued that very old remains, including Kennewick Man, represented earlier migrations into the Americas by groups who might have moved on long ago. This point of view often clashed with indigenous perspectives, particularly beliefs that their ancestors have lived in specific places since the dawn of time. Drawn against this complex background, it’s no wonder it’s taken almost two decades to bring the Kennewick Man story into better focus.

Museums in the U.S. and Europe have collected and studied human remains for well over a century, with the practice gaining considerable momentum after the Civil War. Archaeologists, anatomists and a mishmash of amateurs – influenced by an array of emergent sciences and pseudosciences – gathered bones by the thousands, shipping them in boxes to museums in an effort to systematically study race and, gradually, human prehistory. Museum “bone rooms,” organized to collect and study human remains, helped facilitate new scientific work in the late 19th and early 20th century. The skeletons provided better data about diseases and migration, as well as information about historic diet, with potential impact for living populations. But building museum bone collections also represented major breaches in ethics surrounding traditional death and burial practices for many indigenous people across the Americas and around the world. For them, data gathering was simply not a priority. Instead, they sought to return their ancestors to the earth.

Considered in context, the concerns raised by many Native Americans are not particularly difficult to comprehend. For example, doing archival research for my book “Bone Rooms,” I learned of the case of several naturally mummified bodies discovered in the American Southwest in the 1870s. The dried corpses were paraded around San Francisco, before being exhibited for the public in Philadelphia and Chicago. Once the immense popularity of the exhibitions died down, the bodies were distributed to several museums across the country where they were put into storage. Presenting human remains as purely scientific specimens and historical curiosities hurt living descendants by treating entire populations as scientific resources rather than human beings.

And by focusing mainly on nonwhite groups, the practice reinforced in subtle and direct ways the scientific racism permeating the era. While some European American skeletons were collected by these museums for comparative purposes, their number was vastly outpaced by the number of Native American bodies collected during this same period. Anthropologists and other scientists have worked to address some of these negative legacies. But the vestiges of past wrongdoings have left their mark on many museums across the country. Returning ancestral human remains, sacred artifacts and special objects considered to hold collective cultural value attempts to serve as partial redress for these problematic histories.

Inaccurate initial media reports muddled the Kennewick Man story. After the first anthropologist who looked at the skull proclaimed a resemblance to European Americans, a New York Times headline in 1998 announced, “Old Skull Gets White Looks, Stirring Dispute.” Indeed, as the paper commented, the bogus reports leading people to believe Kennewick Man might be a white person “heightened an already bitter and muddled battle over the rights to Kennewick Man’s remains and his origins.” Hidden away from public view, the prehistoric remains were anything but forgotten. Many indigenous people came to view Kennewick Man as a symbol for the failings of the new NAGPRA law. Some scientists, on the other hand, made impassioned arguments that the bones did not fall under the purview of the new rules.

“Forensic anthropologists at the National Museum of Natural History examined Kennewick Man during 16 days of study in 2005 and 2006”

Their extreme age meant the remains were unlikely to be a direct ancestor of any living group. Following this logic, several influential scientists argued the bones should therefore be available for scientific study. Indeed, extensive scientific tests were carried out on the skeleton. Two years after his discovery, Kennewick Man moved to the behind-the-scenes bone rooms at the Burke Museum on the campus of the University of Washington in Seattle. The long tradition of gathering and interpreting human bones in museums made the decision seem almost natural. Still, it proved a highly problematic (and temporary) “solution” for many Native Americans who wanted the remains buried. Last year, genetic testing finally proved something many people had suggested for some time: Kennewick Man is more closely related to Native Americans than any other living human group.

“The Smithsonian, which has the country’s largest collection of human remains, is debating a statement on potential repatriation of African-American remains”

Should human remains – including the rare, ancient or abnormal bodies sometimes considered especially valuable for science – ever be made into scientific specimens without their approval or that of their descendants? If we do choose to collect and study them for science, who controls the knowledge drawn from these bodies? These are big questions. I argue that the effort to scientize the dead brings about distinct and specific responsibilities unique to human remains collections.

Careful consideration is necessary. Cultural and historical context simply cannot be ignored. By some estimates, museums today house more than half a million individual Native American remains. Probably hundreds if not thousands of sets of skeletal remains will face these big questions in the coming decades. Indicative of changing attitudes and ethical approaches to museum exhibition, recent calls to display Kennewick Man’s remains have largely been rebuked, despite potential for engaging large audiences.

The prospect for new knowledge or effective popular education is tantalizing, but these objectives should never eclipse basic human and civil rights. Two-and-a-half decades after NAGPRA, museums in the United States – including the American Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History – join the Burke Museum in continuing to maintain sizable human remains collections.

Kennewick Man may be among the most high-profile cases of human remains going under the microscope – both in terms of the scientific study he was subject to and the intensity of the debate surrounding him – but he is certainly far from alone. Skeletons wait patiently while the living attempt to work these problems out, but this patience is granted only because the bones have no other choice.”

“Measuring human skulls in physical anthropology (SIA Acc. 12-492 – US National Museum, 1933, Smithsonian Institution Archives)”

When Museums Rushed to Fill Their Rooms With Bones
by Samuel Redman  /  March 15, 2016

[excerpt of Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums]

“Gunshots ripped through the late-spring air near a dusty U.S. Army outpost in rural Minnesota in May 1864. Militiamen who were engaged in a campaign against local Indians shot a Dakota man twice: one bullet struck him in the head, shattering his skull; the other tore through his mouth or neck. Either wound alone could have been fatal. The man likely died instantly or bled to death in seconds. Healthy and strong in life, he now lay on the ground completely disfigured. Described in contemporary newspaper accounts as a “hostile Sioux”—and later by scientists as a man of distant Asiatic descent—he was probably between 25 and 35 years old. A single incident such as this, even a deadly one, on the distant Minnesota frontier might have soon vanished from memory in a nation focused on violent clashes with Native Americans across the region and the raging Civil War miles away. What happened to the body of this particular young Dakota man, however, was striking. The man’s earthly remains were about to play a small part in an unfolding drama involving major museums, obsessive and sometimes eccentric scientists, and an array of amateur collectors. It is a story marked by evolving efforts to understand the human body in the language of race and human history. These efforts sometimes clashed, competed and even overlapped in complex ways.

Leaving dark trails of blood, the soldiers dragged the corpse across the grass to a nearby fort. Word of the killing spread quickly. White civilians began gathering to celebrate. Settlers beat the lifeless body. Bones cracked. The scalp was cut off and carried away as a souvenir. Once the settlers were finished, someone hastily buried the body in a shallow grave. In the days that followed, one German-American newspaper reported on the skirmish from the settlers’ perspective. The paper proclaimed, “It is time to hunt down these red beasts with iron pursuit.” Newspapers crowed about the small victory over the Native Americans, but the incident did not settle the tensions that had boiled over two years earlier in the Dakota War of 1862. The single violent encounter would not have stood out, and the man’s grave might have been soon forgotten. But only a few months after the Dakota man’s death, his skeleton was quietly removed from the ground. The bones were brought to a military doctor stationed at the fort who carefully laid them out on a makeshift wooden operating table. The acting assistant surgeon, a measured and experienced man named Alfred Muller, lamented the circumstances surrounding the young Native American’s death and mutilation. In a careful hand, he wrote a letter describing the body as having experienced “unnecessary ill treatment.”

Muller no doubt possessed his own vivid memories of violence between settlers and the American Indian tribes residing nearby. Just a few years earlier, he had received high praise for his treatment of wounded settlers following one particularly grisly attack. Despite his firsthand experience with frontier violence, he found the recent beating of the corpse of the American Indian man utterly deplorable. But for Muller, what was done was done. With the bones now laid out before him, he delicately handled and examined each one, steadily writing his own detailed notes about the body. The smell of the body was different now, many days later, earthier. Bones were indeed badly cut and damaged in some places—however, many individual bones had been spared injury. Muller was fascinated. Despite his feelings about the treatment of the corpse, he did not rebury the body after his careful examination. Instead, he boxed the remains and sent them to Washington, D.C., where the U.S. Army had recently opened a medical museum. Muller believed the skeleton might be useful to scientific endeavors described in a museum catalogue he had read. Several weeks later, he sent a second parcel containing the man’s missing hand, which Muller had managed to procure from some unnamed source in the name of science.

The remains, which were eventually moved to the Smithsonian Institution, were swept into an expanding project to understand humanity through a changing kaleidoscope of ideas about the human body, race and, increasingly, human origins and prehistory. Scientists, eager for evidence to support their ideas, organized spaces colloquially known as “bone rooms.” In these spaces, they studied the bones in an effort to classify the races and develop an understanding of the deeper human past. They relied heavily on collectors of all kinds to gather specimens. Professionals and amateurs alike—influenced by a broad spectrum of ideas—began gathering and organizing human skeletons from around the world. Museums concerned with natural history, medicine and anthropology—in their quest to solve riddles connected to race and human history—turned to human remains for answers.

“Bones from the US Civil War, on display at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia”

Starting around the time of the Civil War and stretching deep into the 20th century, gathering human skeletal remains was a common intellectual, cultural and social pursuit. Though not limited to professional collectors, the practice centered primarily on an important, changing and diverse network of scholars and scientists affiliated with a number of museums in the United States. Donations allowed certain museum collections to grow rapidly in major cities across the country. Bones were sometimes sent to museums unsolicited. Others were gathered with more systematic intent—carefully removed from cemeteries or other archaeological sites. The gradual, piecemeal and sometimes haphazard acquisition of human remains and subsequent attempts to draw important ideas from their study eventually developed into an outright competition to fill bone rooms with rare specimens.

The desire for scientific collections and competing ideas about race and the history of humankind fueled the growth of bone collections, which outgrew storage areas and spilled into hallways and occasionally onto gallery floors in exhibitions. Physicians and anatomists who came of age during the Civil War were keenly aware of efforts to systematically utilize human skeletons for science. Some sought out the chance to get involved in the project themselves. Those involved disagreed on how best to categorize the races, care for the bodies, and understand them in the tapestry of human history—but they agreed on the inherent value of the project to establish and build bone rooms. Packages accompanied by letters, many with stories like Alfred Muller’s, arrived almost daily at the museum from around the American West and from expeditions around the globe. After arriving in Washington, the Dakota man’s bones were placed on display in the Army Medical Museum, though details about any possible exhibit are murky. The skeleton was most likely used to teach visitors about an emerging field called “comparative anatomy,” a long-standing scientific endeavor to classify human races on the basis of physical features and appearance. The bones would have been identified as those of a Native American man, a Dakota stand-in for many tribes across the Americas—a lone and broken man intended to represent a unique and vanishing race. In some instances, bones were presumed to be similar enough to be simply interchangeable within racial categories; if the jaw was too broken or shattered for display, the museum could replace the broken or missing bone with another, similarly sized portion of a different Native American skeleton.

Medical doctors, anthropologists, and other scientists in the United States and Europe came to believe that perceived behavioral attributes of different peoples—such as intelligence and industriousness—could be directly correlated with physical characteristics, such as the size and shape of the skull. Some even believed that racial attributes could be measured and, indeed, ranked on a grand scale of humankind. George A. Otis, who personally collected and measured hundreds of skulls for the Army Medical Museum, concluded simply, “The American Indians must be assigned a lower position on the human scale than has been believed heretofore.” His conclusions, though drawn from skewed measurements and based on faulty assumptions about the size of the brain cavity and its link to human intelligence, were nevertheless offered with the certainty that ample evidence was thought to afford. While not all scientists were as bold and direct in their racist conclusions, collecting, studying, and displaying nonwhite human remains largely supported the scientific (and pseudoscientific) racism that dominated the era.

Significant ideas about the human body were hotly contested between the late-19th and early-20th centuries, and scientists frequently turned to human remains collections for evidence to support new theories responding to old questions. These questions touched on many apparent problems and emerged in unique forms over time. Why do humans from distinct places appear different? What happens to our bodies when we age? Are some people inherently better suited to thrive in the natural and modern world, and if so, why? In transitioning from grave to museum bone room, human remains were endowed with new and powerful scientific meaning. By the turn of the century, skeletons became a key tool for testing the numerous theories surrounding race that were developing across a range of disciplines in the United States. At almost every turn, however, the grand vision laid out by the early founders of these collections—who claimed that secrets of racial evolution would be laid bare in the scientific examination of human bodies—seemed to veer further off course. Grave robbing, scientific racism and ethnocentrism ultimately damaged the reputations of museums and scientists on a global scale. Despite the waxing and waning influence of these collections in American culture, issues surrounding the process of gathering, researching and displaying human remains do not represent a simple declension story; debates surrounding human remains collections reemerged in new forms later in the 20th century. Ethical challenges from indigenous communities—including demands for ancestors to be returned for permanent reburial—reshape the story.

Remains are spread throughout large and small museums across the country, and cataloguing information is often vague and limited, though the information that museums provide to tribes, researchers and casual visitors has grown much more detailed in recent years following the completion of federally mandated surveys. Recent estimates have placed the number of Native American remains in U.S. museums at about 500,000. Adding to this figure are smaller collections of bones from African Americans, European Americans and indigenous peoples from around the globe. It is estimated that museums in Europe have acquired an additional half a million sets of Native American remains since the 19th century. More than 116,000 sets of human remains and nearly one million associated funerary objects are considered by museums in the United States to be culturally unaffiliated, meaning no specific ancestral origin has been ascribed to them. Although potentially surprising to a museum visitor, these estimates of the size of human remains collections in the United States and Europe are conservative.

Interview with Ann Fabian

The history of these collections is dramatic, occasionally punctuated by unexpected twists. The story emerges from an ongoing competition to establish the largest and most prestigious museums in cities across the United States. At times driven by both ego and intellect, scientists established a new field as they collected, their studies working to shape ideas about race and what it means to be human. For scientists who collected the dead, the desire to obtain remains for growing bone rooms often suspended or displaced codes of ethical behavior. Museum curators, as well as amateur collectors, competed and collaborated to understand the body as a scientific object; at the same time, visitors to museums that displayed bodies were continually enthralled, almost surprised, by the humanity of ancient and recent bodies they found exhibited before them.”



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