The iconic American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City has announced plans to relinquish approximately 12,000 human remains from its collection due to the institution’s past involvement in grave desecration and racist practices targeting Indigenous and black communities.
According to an internal memo acquired by the New York Times, the museum plans to take down twelve exhibits to assess their origins and identities.
Sean M. Decatur, who became the museum’s president in April, highlighted in a letter to the staff that significant power imbalances facilitated these human remains collections.
He said, “Many researchers in the 19th and 20th centuries then used such collections to advance deeply flawed scientific agendas rooted in white supremacy — namely the identification of physical differences that could reinforce models of racial hierarchy.”
Significant among the museum’s vast collection are remains like the fully reconstructed skeleton of a 1000 AD Mongolian warrior and a 19th-century Tibetan apron crafted from human bones.
Particularly troubling exhibits include skeletons unlawfully exhumed from graves throughout New York.
For instance, in 1903, the bones of five Black adults were illicitly taken from a Manhattan cemetery designated for enslaved individuals.
While constructing the Inwood neighborhood, construction workers discovered colonial-era bodies, arranged the skulls into a pyramid shape, and took a photograph.
Decatur referred to this act as a desecration, noting, “The legacy of dehumanizing Black bodies through enslavement continues after death in how those bodies were treated and dehumanized in service of a scientific project.”
The museum’s collection also includes around 400 specimens from the “medical collection,” primarily consisting of remains of impoverished New Yorkers who passed away in the 1940s.
These remains were initially handed over to medical schools and later transferred to the AMNH, a move that some legal experts deem might have been unlawful.
Drawing the most criticism, the museum possesses the remains of approximately 2,200 Native Americans.
Despite a mandate issued three decades ago under the Native-American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act to return these remains to their rightful descendants, the museum has been sluggish in tracing the tribes. In the past 30 years, though, the AMNH has returned around 1,000 skeletons.
The AMNH’s revised policy mandates that these human remains be appropriately maintained within the establishment until they’re sanctioned for return.
In his letter, Decatur emphasized the ethical concerns surrounding the public display of these remains, stating, “These are ancestors and are in some cases victims of violent tragedies or representatives of groups who were abused and exploited, and the act of public exhibition extends that exploitation.”