Museum’s Display of Human Remains Questioned

( – The American History Museum in New York will be joining a growing list of museums removing all displays containing human remains. The museum plans to remove or at least overhaul its stock of roughly 12,000 human remains. There is also outside political pressure over the remains as some were likely grave-robbed indigenous people, former slaves, and New York’s poor population. Sean Decatur, the president of the museum, remarked that the remains they have represent “extreme imbalances of power” relative to their social status when alive.

The remains are also being used to detract from research conclusions reached in the 19th and 20th centuries. Decatur said the remains and conclusions reached from their study were “rooted in white supremacy”. He believes that identifying different physical characteristics and differences has contributed to a “racial hierarchy’”.

Indigenous remains have been of particular interest since the passing of the Native-American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act 30 years ago. The legislation requires institutions to return any and all remains determined to be from Native Americans. Many institutions have said this is difficult because several remains are not easily identified and require further investigating. New York’s museum has turned over roughly 1,000 remains they have identified as Native American but hold an additional 2,200 that they cannot identify.

The remains at the New York museum also include those from what they call the “medical collection” comprising about 400 poor New York residents from the 1940’s that were initially made available to medical schools before being sold to the museum. There are 12 display cases at the New York museum that hold human remains, one of which is of a Mongol warrior dating back to AD1000. He has been reconstructed and the display includes ceremonial and other items of the time. Decatur insists none of these exhibits are “so essential” that they merit staying over the “ethical dilemmas” they present.

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