Harvard, like so many American institutions, is closely associated with the history of slavery. At various points in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, donors made their fortunes on slave labor, enslaved people lived and worked on the Massachusetts campus, and university scientists developed racist theories that were used to justify continued enslavement.
On Thursday, after years of ongoing scrutiny of the ethics of museum collections, the university is addressing the remains of 15 people who may have been enslaved in its possession. Lawrence S. Bacow, the current president of Harvard University, said in a statement that among the university’s collections of 22,000 human remains, researchers had identified 15 people of African descent who lived in the United States when slavery was still practiced. (Little is known about them, including whether or not they were enslaved themselves.)
“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,” Bacow wrote in a letter to students, faculty, and alumni. “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.”
In his statement, Bacow announced a new steering committee to conduct archival research on the 15 people, whose remains are part of Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, and determine if and where they may be repatriated. It’s the first step in what Bacow described as a larger effort to conduct a comprehensive study on all human remains in Harvard’s collections and develop new rules for stewardship.
“It’s going to be a long process,” Samuel Redman, an associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the author of Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums, told Motherboard.
Throughout the country, there are countless bodies in academic institutions, museums, state and local historical societies, and private collections. But they’re just beginning to grapple with what these collections mean.
In the 19th century, American scientists believed that researching remains was essential to advancing human knowledge, especially on matters like the human body and race. They needed more skeletons than trained archaeologists could ever source. But a “shockingly diverse” segment of the public was eager to help, Redman said.
Members of the military, medical doctors, amateur archaeologists, and farmers collected bodies, unearthed while tilling fields or on organized digs, and sent them to institutions like the Smithsonian, which quickly amassed one of the largest collections of human remains in the world, with the bones of an estimated 30,000 people.
Initially, many institutions were hesitant to display the remains their scientists were studying behind the scenes, Redman said. Curators believed the public couldn’t stomach the sight of these bodies, but the opposite proved true. When the San Diego Museum of Man (now the Museum of Us) opened in 1915, visitors at the Panama-California Exposition rushed to see the collections. As the commercial success of contemporary showcases like Body Worlds show, the living love a good look at the dead.
In the 1970s, however, activists began to push back on the many and varied uses of these remains. Native Americans led the charge, decrying the treatment of the bodies of their ancestors by scientists, curators, and the public. The movement resulted in the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, a 1990 federal law that guides the repatriation of certain Native American cultural items, including human remains. It was a massive win, but limited in scope; there are still no federal laws dictating the treatment of the human remains of other marginalized groups.
That means it’s up to individual entities, like Harvard, to decide if and how to act. Recently, public pressure has spurred tough conversations about human remains in museums across the country. In 2020, for example, the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Museum said it would remove the crania of 55 enslaved people from a private classroom to storage. But what comes next is still to be determined.
“A lot of these things need to be solved on a case by case basis,” Redman said. “It’s easy to say, well, we should give all of these 20,000 remains back.” But in some cases, he said, there may not be anyone appropriate and able to accept them.
Regardless, activists and experts like Redman believe institutions need to put in the effort. Historically, places like Harvard were “motivated by having access to these limited resources, and then in some cases controlling them,” Redman said. When it came to human remains, “people wanted the largest collections,” he added. Scientists became possessive about things that weren’t necessarily theirs in the first place.
From the beginning, the collection of human remains has been “ego-driven and political in important ways,” Redman said, “and in ways I think we should continue to confront.”