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Monday, October 16, 2023

A New York Museum’s House of Bones

Another major news story today is art crime professor Erin L. Thompson’s deep dive into the American Museum of Natural History’s possession of the remains of at least 12,000 individuals, including Native and Black Americans. Thompson spent a year investigating the museum's collection of human remains for this massive report. Days before the publication of our story, an internal email at the museum announced a change in its policy regarding the display of human remains. - Hyperallergic


Felix Kaaya, a member of the Meru people of Tanzania, spent decades searching for his grandfather’s bones. Mangi (“Chief”) Lobulu was among the 19 Indigenous leaders hanged from a single tree on March 2, 1900, during Germany’s brutal suppression of the Meru’s resistance to colonization of East Africa. After that, his body disappeared.

Kaaya, who is now in his early 70s, suspected that Lobulu was one of the many dead African individuals whose remains were shipped to German universities and museums for study and experimentation.  Konradin Kunze, a German performer and director, met Kaaya while preparing an exhibition advocating for the return of these remains.  Kunze promised to help Kaaya find Lobulu. His research in German archives revealed that Lobulu’s skeleton had indeed been sent to the Berlin anthropologist Felix von Luschan and that Lobulu’s bones were among the 200 skeletons and 5,000 skulls the American Museum of Natural History purchased from von Luschan’s widow in 1924.  Lobulu’s remains have spent a century on the Upper West Side.

The AMNH collected the remains of at least 12,000 individuals through 150 years of purchases, donations, and expeditions. While the existence of this collection is not a secret, their identities are generally unknown.  After I received an anonymous tip last year, I began trying to identify these individuals, many of whom came from Indigenous or colonized populations around the world.

Most of the human remains still held in American museums are those of Native Americans (nearly 100,000, according to a recent ProPublica report).  But the remains of thousands of individuals from outside the United States also sit in storage at institutions including Chicago’s Field Museum, the University of California, Berkeley’s Hearst Museum, and the University of Pennsylvania. The Smithsonian Institution, with the remains of 33,000 individuals, and Harvard University, with 22,000, hold the largest human remains collections in the United States. 





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