Harvard has formed a steering committee to catalogue and develop policies around the human remains housed in the school’s museums, University President Lawrence S. Bacow announced in an email to affiliates on Thursday.
The announcement comes following a review by the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, which found that the museum holds the human remains of at least 15 individuals of African descent who were likely to have been alive during the time of slavery in the U.S., Bacow wrote.
“This important work is long overdue,” he wrote. “On behalf of the University community, I apologize for Harvard’s role in collection practices that placed the academic enterprise above respect for the dead and human decency.”
The committee will be tasked with creating “a comprehensive survey of human remains” across all Harvard museums and examining their use. It will also develop a policy on the “collection, display, and ethical stewardship” of human remains in all University museums.
“The committee’s initial focus will be archival research on the remains of the fifteen individuals identified in the Peabody review,” Bacow wrote.
The steering committee — which is charged with producing a public report by fall 2021 — will be headed by Evelynn M. Hammonds, a professor of History of Science and African and African American Studies and a former Dean of the College.
“Guided by their findings, the committee will consult within and beyond the Harvard community to consider options for the return of these remains, as well as their burial or reburial, commemoration, and memorialization,” Bacow wrote.
Bacow noted the University also “care[s] for” one the largest collections of American Indian remains in the country, and is working to return culturally affiliated Native American human remains and objects in the Peabody Museum to tribal nations.
Bacow wrote that these existing efforts, as well as the ongoing University-wide initiative researching Harvard’s ties to slavery, will inform the efforts of Hammonds’s committee.
“One measure of any community is how it treats its least powerful members,” Bacow wrote. “We cannot remedy the indignities visited upon some of the individuals whose remains are housed in our museum collections while they lived, but we can help to ensure that they are treated in death with the care that we would wish for ourselves.”
Bacow wrote that the discovery underscored the importance of reckoning with the University’s history with slavery.
“Our museum collections undoubtedly help to expand the frontiers of knowledge, but we cannot—and should not—continue to pursue truth in ignorance of our history,” he wrote.
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