Following a University report that indicated the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology houses the remains of formerly enslaved people within its collections, anthropology scholars and curator advocates called on Harvard to promote conversations regarding museums’ roles in perpetuating racism.
At the end of January, University President Lawrence S. Bacow announced the results of a Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology review, which found that the museum’s collections include the remains of 15 individuals of African descent who were likely alive during the time of slavery in the United States.
Tomiko Brown-Nagin, dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and chair of the presidential initiative on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery, a University-wide effort to examine the legacy of slavery at Harvard, responded to Bacow’s announcement in a note to Radcliffe staff.
“This terrible discovery calls for an urgent response,” she wrote.
Inspired by the ongoing initiative on the legacy of slavery at Harvard, Peabody Museum staff started to inspect its archives to determine if they contained remains of people of African descent who lived during the period of American slavery, museum director Jane Pickering said in an interview.
Pickering said this search, and the subsequent apology, were part of the Museum’s approach to “ethical stewardship,” which she said involves reckoning with practices it has held since its founding.
“There were collecting practices that just completely disregarded the affected communities,” she said. “That to me is at the heart of it all. Museums were part of the colonial enterprise.”
Pickering added the Museum is “very highly confident” that the remains Bacow referred to in his letter are the only ones of people who were possibly enslaved in America in the Museum’s collections.
Tamara K. Lanier, who is currently suing the University and the Peabody Museum for possession of daguerreotypes of enslaved people she says are her ancestors, said the Peabody’s possession of the remains of enslaved people in its collections is part of a larger curatorial pattern.
“They have a moral responsibility to restore dignity to these people whose bodies have been exploited and to give them the burial that they deserve,” she said. “They have an obligation to find the families of these people, and offer a formal apology for failing to do the right thing.”
“This revelation confirms for me what I have already known – that they are unethical stewards of the daguerreotypes and other cultural property,” Lanier added.
University spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment. A Peabody Museum spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
Dan Hicks, a professor of archaeology at Oxford University and the curator of world archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford, said that collecting human remains was once a “central method and practice of anthropology.”
“Harvard is not alone in having significant collections of human remains of Black and brown people who were subject to colonialism, to slavery, to military violence, to a whole host of processes in which [academia] was to some degree complicit,” Hicks said.
Human remains in anthropology museums have “a central role in these histories of racism, histories of violence, histories of dispossession,” Hicks said.
“But those histories are not over, and the museum is an institution that makes those histories last,” he added.
Hicks noted the fact that these collections remain calls for a kind of work that has not yet taken place.
“It’s an indictment of how anthropology has failed to face up to its ongoing colonial legacy that we don't have the facts – the curatorial work has not been done to find out as much as we can possibly know about collections of this kind,” he said.
The Peabody Museum played a role in that history, according to Pickering. She said the work that lies ahead will require learning about the human remains in the collection and consulting with relevant groups about their future.
“We’re going to be doing a deep dive into the archives and thinking about repatriation and burial,” Pickering said. “We are really committed to trying to think with communities about our ethical responsibilities to them.”
She added that anthropology museums have a role in promoting ongoing discussions about the legacies of racism and colonialism.
“I think anthropology museums are places where you can talk about these issues because they’re very real, and so moving forward they provide a place to to act as well as to think about the past,” she said.
Hicks also said it will be important that “descendants and survivor communities” be involved in these decisions.
“We’re not going to get it right if we don’t foreground people,” he said.
Hicks added that the role is one the University is well-placed to take up.
“Harvard is in a great position – it’s got the resources, it’s got the intellectual capacity to lead and show how many other museums outside of universities are able to address these issues,” he said.
–Staff writer Kate N. Guerin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.