The policy change was announced amid ongoing scrutiny over the ethical questions surrounding how the remains were acquired.
New York City’s American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) announced recently that it plans to remove human remains from its displays, vowing to amend policies after a new report questioned the legality and ethics of the museum’s ownership of the remains.
The decision was first announced in an all-staff email on Oct. 12, 2023, written by museum president Sean Decatur.
In the statement, Decatur acknowledged the museum’s staggering number of human remains — 12,000 — and described how many of them came to the museum in the first place.
Around 26 percent of the individuals in the museum’s collection, he said, are the skeletal remains of Native Americans from within the United States.
The other 74 percent, meanwhile, is comprised of other people’s remains, some from archaeological digs, some from private collectors, and others from nearby medical schools that had used the bodies of the deceased for anatomical study.
“We must acknowledge that, with the small exception of those who bequeathed their bodies to medical schools for continued study, no individual consented to have their remains included in a museum collection,” Decatur wrote. “Human remains collections were made possible by extreme imbalances of power.”
Decatur also noted that many human remains were collected throughout the 19th and 20th centuries “to advance deeply flawed scientific agendas rooted in white supremacy — namely the identification of physical differences that could reinforce models of racial hierarchy.”
The announcement came just three days before a lengthy report from Hyperallergic‘s Erin Thompson, who began trying to identify the individuals whose remains were catalogued at the AMNH after receiving an anonymous tip last year.
According to Thompson’s research, the remains of nearly 100,000 Native Americans are being held in museums across the United States, and the remains of thousands of individuals from outside the United States are also being held in storage at various institutions across the country. Other institutions mentioned in the report include the Smithsonian Institution, Harvard University, Chicago’s Field Museum, the University of California, the University of Pennsylvania, and Berkeley’s Hearst Museum.
In the 1980s, Indigenous groups protested against this practice, leading to the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. The act required all museums that receive federal funding to return any identified Native American remains to descendant communities.
Seventeen years later, the United Nations officially recognized the right for Indigenous people everywhere to reclaim their ancestors’ bodies. Still, given the vast catalogue of human remains held at various institutions across the world, identifying and returning them all has not been an easy task.
Museums such as the Smithsonian have, for example, amended their policies to disclose more information about the remains in their collections and return those remains to the proper communities when possible. But up until recently, the AMNH had largely remained quiet, even amid ongoing scrutiny surrounding the issue.
Thompson spoke to a number of current and former AMNH staffers and thoroughly examined AMNH documents and academic papers to get a full grasp of how many remains the AMNH had in its collection — and possibly, who they belonged to. However, most of the staffers only spoke under the condition that they be kept anonymous, and the museum itself had yet to make any comment, either publicly or to Thompson.
“In my final request for comment to the museum this month, I shared some of the sources I used in my research, including the museum’s annual reports, research papers, and other materials that I’ve also linked throughout this article,” Thompson wrote. “A few days after they received this information, the AMNH’s chair and president announced in an all-staff email that the museum would update its human remains policy.”
As Thompson pointed out and Decatur acknowledged, the AMNH only displays a small number of human remains at the moment, but this was not always the case.
In fact, in his email Decatur noted that the museum was the site of the Second Eugenics Congress in 1921, “putting our institution’s civic and scientific authority behind a pseudo-scientific, racist, and xenophobic theory that was used to promote discriminatory practices. This research is disturbing morally and flat-out wrong scientifically.”
The museum president also referenced a recent news story that claimed the museum holds the remains of five individuals who were believed to have been enslaved people removed from a burial ground in Manhattan’s Inwood neighborhood.
“Enslavement was a violent, dehumanizing act; removing these remains from their rightful burial place ensured that the denial of basic human dignity would continue even in death,” Decatur wrote. “Identifying a restorative, respectful action in consultation with local communities must be part of our commitment.”
Decatur’s all-staff email is listed publicly on the museum’s website, alongside an official statement from the AMNH which outlines its intentions to amend its policies going forward and “treat human remains with dignity and respect, as individuals once living.”
In the statement, the museum announced its plans to remove human remains from public display “while continuing to display casts where appropriate to further the Museum’s education mission.” It also said it will increase resources for “ongoing critical review” of its collection of human remains while consulting with descendant communities.
Thompson, meanwhile, shared a database on X to help descendants find and identify their ancestors in the museum’s collection.
After learning about the American Museum of Natural History’s new policy changes regarding human remains, read about when the long-lost remains of the last Tasmanian tiger were found in a museum cupboard. Or, see these 25 bizarre displays at the Mütter Museum.