The American Museum of Natural History is planning to overhaul its stewardship of some 12,000 human remains, the painful legacy of collecting practices that saw the museum acquire the skeletons of Indigenous and enslaved people taken from their graves and the bodies of New Yorkers who died as recently as the 1940s.
The new policy will include the removal of all human bones now on public display and improvements to the storage facilities where the remains are now kept. Anthropologists will also spend more time studying the collection to determine the origins and identities of remains, as the museum faces questions about the legality and the ethics of its acquisitions.
“Figuring out the answers to exactly what we have here, and how to actually describe that as completely as we can, is something that is important to do moving forward,” said Sean M. Decatur, who became the museum’s president in April.
The effort, which was announced to staff members this week, comes as natural history museums face increasing scrutiny over remains they often acquired in the name of discredited scientific theories, like eugenics, and which typically involved collecting the bodies of people who never consented to becoming institutional property.