I read an article yesterday that brought up repatriation. The issue it presented was regarding human remains of enslaved peoples. Written for the New York Times, “What Should Museums Do With the Bones of the Enslaved?” discusses how many prominent museums, including the Smithsonian, the Peabody Essex Museum at Harvard University, and University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, still have large collections of remains. Not only is this incredibly disrespectful, it’s disgraceful that these items were even on display in 2020. The fact that there’s even a collection at UPenn’s Museum called The Morton Cranial Collection prioritizes academic study and legacy of professors above all else.
This practice continues the legitimizing of craniometry and, more broadly, eugenics. These “scientific” and racist studies of skulls were established to determine intelligence. It is well known enough about the collections of Native American remains in museums, ushering the Native American Grave Protection & Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) into practice in 1990. According to the article, the collection of remains is said to be part of a “more traditional view of the museum’s mission to collect, preserve and study artifacts,” causing repatriations to be seen as “potential losses to science.”
I call bullshit.
I don’t need to have a scientific degree to know that it is possible to recognize that a past that hurt others intentionally is not one we should continue. And that there isn’t real scientific value for our publics or fields that reflect the collections’ intentions. And that most academic disciplines are based in colonial practices. It is incredibly difficult to break molds that have been well established and engrained in our brains, yes. However, anyone who still agrees that the racist legacy of colonial practices is more important than foundational human decency and human dignity shouldn’t be working in a museum that dares to even utter the words “in public trust”. Because it isn’t for the public at this point.
We want better. And it honestly sounds more like an excuse to not change because it would actually make us think about how screwed up everything is.
These statements are not necessarily made on behalf of the writer of this article; they’re writing about museums from a non-museum professional standpoint. This is just one lens into how the public see museums, collection management, and daily operations. In addition to these aforementioned points, the author brings in thoughts from Dr. Lonnie Bunch III, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institute and a founder of the National Museum of African American History & Culture. I agree with Dr. Bunch, who stated in this article that if we are to move forward with policy regarding repatriation of human remains in general, the policy should be based off existing literature (NAGPRA). Why recreate the wheel if most of the work is already done? That being said, we can’t just copy/paste wording and call it good. This is going to take work, time, and lots of grace as we move forward to create museums that are worthy of their very definitions.
So, get loud about it. Don’t think that if you’re an intern, volunteer, work part time, or just started that your voice doesn’t mean anything. Rally your colleagues and say something. Change isn’t going to happen until something changes the minds of those in charge.
And it obviously has to be us.
Sarah Hixson (she/her/hers) is an emerging art museum curator and artist. If you have questions or comments for her, you can email us at email@example.com and she'll get back to you as soon as she can.