The American Museum of Natural History recently announced that the New York City institution will return some 12,000 human remains pilfered from Black and Indigenous grave sites and the bodies of poor people by colonizers and colonizer descendants who followed in the Western cultural tradition of, well, just pretty much taking whatever they want.
According to the New York Times, the museum is set to remove a dozen exhibits currently on display so they can be examined to determine their identities and origins, a memo to museum staff states.
“Human remains collections were made possible by extreme imbalances of power,” Sean M. Decatur, the museum’s president, wrote in the memo. (*whispers* He’s talking about white supremacy. Don’t tell the white supremacists who are trying to kill critical race theory.)
“Moreover, 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,” Decatur continued. (See, told you!)
From the Times:
In the New York museum’s collection are the remains of 2,200 Native Americans that are supposed to be repatriated to descendants under a federal law adopted more than 30 years ago. The museum has repatriated the remains of 1,000 people in response to that law, but has drawn criticism for the pace at which it has been researching the tribal affiliation of others. Currently, the museum has three people involved in that work, although Decatur said part of his initiative is to focus more resources in this area.
A second set of problematic remains includes the bones of five Black adults that were dug up from a Manhattan cemetery for enslaved people in 1903.
A third set, known as the “medical collection,” includes the remains of some 400 largely poor New Yorkers who died in the 1940s and whose unclaimed bodies were initially given to medical schools. They were transferred to the museum by the schools in a process that may not have been allowed under the law, according to legal scholars.
The museum still holds more than 100 Black skeletons, 60 of which are included in the 400 stolen in New York less than a century ago. They were “discovered” and stolen at the behest of anthropologist Harry L. Shapiro, who was celebrated as an expert on evolution but is now more associated with the white supremacist eugenics movement focused on the differences between racial groups. (Guys, the white supremacist pseudo-scientists really needed those bones to prove Black people are dumber than white people. It was really important, you know, for “science.”)
“Folks who studied eugenics were interested in understanding the anatomical and behavioral differences between certain groups,” said Carlina Maria de la Cova, an anthropology professor at the University of South Carolina. “Today we would consider these approaches as scientific racism. But at the time, scientists were trading people like kids trade Pokémon cards.”
Unfortunately (and unsurprisingly) there is no federal law that forces museums and other colonizer institutions of stolen Black bodies to give back those remains, but the AMNH is figuring it out nonetheless.
More from the Times:
There are no legal guidelines for returning African American remains, though Congress passed a law protecting their burial grounds last year. Experts have instead looked at the federal rules for Native American remains as inspiration. This year, the Penn Museum in Philadelphia received court approval to bury the skulls of 20 individuals, many of which were formerly enslaved African Americans.
Now, why there is no federal law to force the return of stolen Black remains—and only a law made protecting Black grave sites last year—is a question that most certainly needs answers, but, again, examining that would probably require a degree of critical race theorizing that a certain segment of American politicians are doing their best to bury.
And they wouldn’t want it dug up—unlike Black and Indigenous body parts.
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