Measuring human skulls in physical anthropology (SIA Acc. 12-492 – United States National Museum. Division of Graphic Arts. Section of Photography, Photographic Collection, 1933, Smithsonian Institution Archives)
You know how sometimes you randomly come across information that evokes such a visceral response that you are compelled to share the information with others? Going through the endless emails I’ve signed up for but never come close to ever reading even a fraction of them, the byline from Atlas Obscura caught my attention. Opening the article I saw it is was a reprint through Creative Commons license, so I went to the source article at, “TheConversation.com” written by Delande Justinvil and Chip Colwell and read the article. The byline is:
US museums hold the remains of thousands of Black people
At this time it is unknown how many remains are in the museums, but it’s a minimum of 3,000 in just 5 universities, which gives you an idea of how many in all museums across the US. Let that sink in for a minute.
I also read in the article:
The U.S. Senate passed the African American Burial Grounds Network Act in December 2020. This bill would establish a voluntary network to identify and protect often at-risk African American cemeteries. The program would be administered through the National Park Service, and nothing in the legislation would apply to private property without the consent of landowners. More than 50 prominent national, state and local organizations support the passage of the act into law and are working to have it reintroduced in Congress’ current session.
But even this legislation does not include the remains of Black people in museum collections. Such an addition would be more in line with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a 1990 federal law that addresses Native American human remains in all contexts – both in the ground and in collections. This work is necessary because many of the remains of Black people, like those of Native Americans, were taken without the consent of family, used in ways that contravened spiritual traditions, and treated with less respect than most others in society.
Looking a little further, I came across this March 15, 2016 SmithsonianMag.com article by Samuel Redman byline:
When Museums Rushed to Fill Their Rooms With Bones
In part fed by discredited and racist theories about race, scientists and amateurs alike looked to human remains to learn more about themselves
The article is an excerpt from his book, “Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums”
Regarding numbers being kept in US museums and elsewhere, the article says:
Remains are spread throughout large and small museums across the country, and cataloguing information is often vague and limited, though the information that museums provide to tribes, researchers and casual visitors has grown much more detailed in recent years following the completion of federally mandated surveys. Recent estimates have placed the number of Native American remains in U.S. museums at about 500,000. Adding to this figure are smaller collections of bones from African Americans, European Americans and indigenous peoples from around the globe. It is estimated that museums in Europe have acquired an additional half a million sets of Native American remains since the 19th century. More than 116,000 sets of human remains and nearly one million associated funerary objects are considered by museums in the United States to be culturally unaffiliated, meaning no specific ancestral origin has been ascribed to them. Although potentially surprising to a museum visitor, these estimates of the size of human remains collections in the United States and Europe are conservative.
I would urge each person reading this to go to the original articles and read the rest. Your mind and heart may not rest easy after reading them, but it is important information to know, especially when it comes to urging your elected representatives to act to remedy the current reality of it.