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American Museum of Natural History will remove human remains from public display

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The American Museum of Natural History in New York says it will remove all human remains from public display and improve its process for repatriating those remains. NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: The Natural History Museum has the skeletal remains of about 12,000 individuals in its collection. Some come from medical schools, others were stolen from sacred burial sites or donated by looters at the turn of the last century.

ERIN THOMPSON: I talked to a Tanzanian man whose grandfather is held in the museum, his entire skeleton.

BLAIR: Erin Thompson has been investigating the museum's human remains. She's a professor of art crime at the John Jay College at the City University of New York.

THOMPSON: His grandfather was executed by German colonial authorities in 1910 for resisting their rule. His body was shipped to Berlin and studied there and came into the collections of a German anthropologist, who ended up selling his collection of 5,000 skulls and 200 skeletons to the Natural History Museum in 1924. So this man's family has been looking for his body for more than a hundred years, and it turns out he has been on the Upper West Side for most of that time.

BLAIR: Last year, with help from German archives, the museum acknowledged it had the grandfather's remains. It says discussions about his return are ongoing. In a text, his grandson tells NPR, when his skeleton returns, there will be a traditional burial, followed by three days of mourning.

SEAN DECATUR: The history here is long and deep and painful.

BLAIR: Sean Decatur is the first Black president of the American Museum of Natural History since it was founded more than 150 years ago.

DECATUR: We have to acknowledge that whose remains came into museums were largely from groups that were marginalized or exploited economically and socially, politically.

BLAIR: He says all of the human remains that are on display will be removed by the end of the year.

DECATUR: Over the course of the next couple of months, we're going to be detailing what needs to be done to do a fuller investigation of what our holdings are, of the provenance, understanding the descendant communities.

BLAIR: But here's the thing - there have been calls for museums and universities to do this for decades. In 2007, the United Nations declared that Indigenous people around the world had the right to reclaim their ancestors' remains. In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

JENNA MACAULAY: It's a very pitiful number that have been returned.

BLAIR: Jenna Macaulay is an attorney with Berkey Williams, which works with Indigenous nations throughout the U.S. She's a citizen of the Tuscarora Nation. As soon as she heard the Natural History Museum's announcement, she got in touch with them and they responded. She says tracking down missing relatives at museums and universities has been difficult.

MACAULAY: It gives our population a tremendous amount of stress and harm when we undertake this work because our ancestors are not relics. They had families. They had loved ones that mourned them when they died. And most importantly, those people had spiritual expectations about their final resting place. Their unjust removal from their burial space is a violation of those spiritual rights.

BLAIR: Macaulay says living relatives don't always know where to look for their ancestors because where they are now is often not where they were found. She says institutions bear the responsibility of knowing who is in their collections. Sean Decatur says the Natural History Museum will be more proactive in its outreach to descendant communities.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF NORTH AMERICANS' "RIVERS THAT YOU CANNOT SEE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.
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