Skulls on a table

After making headlines for removing the iconic bronze statue of Theodore Roosevelt from its entrance last year,  the American Museum of Natural History is continuing its mission to address what it claims were racist practices in curating some exhibits.

The Manhattan-based museum is reportedly removing about 12,000 human remains in what The New York Times characterized as the “painful legacy of collecting practices that saw the museum acquire the skeletons of Indigenous and enslaved people taken from their graves and the bodies of New Yorkers who died as recently as the 1940s.”

In a letter to staff this week obtained by the newspaper, the museum president Sean M. Decatur said “Human remains collections were made possible by extreme imbalances of power.”

The American Museum of Natural History has decided to remove around 12,000 human remains from display claiming racist practices, grave robbing of Indigenous and black peoples — Pubity (@pubity) October 16, 2023

“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 added.

The Times noted that this move by the museum comes amid “scrutiny over remains they often acquired in the name of discredited scientific theories, like eugenics, and which typically involved collecting the bodies of people who never consented to becoming institutional property.”

The New York Times reported:

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.

Trumpinator Bobblehead

That particular cemetery may have dated back to colonial times, according to Decatur and the remains were likely unearthed when the Upper Manhattan neighborhood of Inwood was being constructed.

“A photo from that time displays the skeletons that had been pulled from the ground. Workers formed a pyramid with the skulls,” the Times noted and cited a historian researching the area who said, “I felt like the bones should be repatriated.”

The American Museum of Natural History is addressing its vast collection acquired by some practices now viewed as racist. The collection has some 12,000 human remains, including those of 400 New Yorkers who died as recently as the 1940s. — The New York Times (@nytimes) October 15, 2023

“Certainly as an African American, the question of race is one of particular interest,” Decatur said in an interview. “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.”

He told staff in his memo, “Identifying a restorative, respectful action in consultation with local communities must be part of our commitment.”

And in what some scholars think may have been an illegal move, medical schools in the late 1940s reportedly gave the museum a “medical collection” of 400 “sickly, isolated and largely poor New Yorkers” who” had died alone in homes, hospitals and, in some cases, the street.”

The bodies, unclaimed by family, were used in training by the medical schools but were never properly buried, given instead to the museum where they remained “boxed in storage, their identities largely known but their fates still far from decided.”

“Folks who studied eugenics were interested in understanding the anatomical and behavioral differences between certain groups,” Carlina Maria de la Cova, an anthropology professor at the University of South Carolina, said. “Today we would consider these approaches as scientific racism. But at the time, scientists were trading people like kids trade Pokémon cards.”

Currently, the American Museum of Natural History showcases human remains in 12 display cases.

“None of the items on display,” Decatur told staff, “are so essential to the goals and narrative of the exhibition as to counterbalance the ethical dilemmas presented by the fact that human remains are in some instances exhibited alongside and on the same plane as objects.

“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,” he added.