The Smithsonian seeks to return Human Remains, most collected and studied under dubious circumstances

L’antropologo Aleš Hrdlička (Archivi dello Smithsonian Institution)

The Smithsonian seeks to redress the historical injustice and practice of scientific racism by returning remains, most the 19th and 20th Centuries, from archaeological digs, “donations” from museums, universities, hospitals and individuals. In most cases the remains were obtained without informed consent and in ways incompatible with modern standards.

Like other cultural institutions around the world, the Smithsonian has grappled in recent years with mounting pressure to expedite efforts to repatriate human remains. Last summer, the Washington Post published an investigation into the Smithsonian’s holdings—particularly those collected under the watch of Aleš Hrdlička, the Institution’s first curator of physical anthropology.

As reported by the Washington paper WTOP, “One scientist at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History collected human brains. So we do not want these in the collection, they’re not valuable for research, they really never were. So we’re looking to find names for these so that we can look for descendants and return them,” said Linda St. Thomas, chief spokesperson for the Smithsonian Institution.

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Most of the remains came into the Smithsonian’s custody in the nineteenth and early twentieth century and were to be used for scientific research. While science seeks to develop objective knowledge, it is a human endeavor and therefore can be and often is influenced by ideology. Since the Smithsonian’s founding in 1846, the ideology of white supremacy, manifest in systems of slavery, segregation, immigration restrictions, and expansionism was deeply embedded in American society and government policy. Established as a federal trust instrumentality, the Smithsonian’s practices reflected what has come to be referred to as “scientific racism.”

Many natural scientists and anatomists of the time, including several founders of the new discipline of anthropology, believed that race was a fundamental natural category, a determinant of human differences and levels of cultural development. Beginning with craniology in the late eighteenth century and then expanding to include eugenics in the late nineteenth century, scientists sought to gather evidence to “prove” racist theories and justify social practices as founded upon what they construed as objective truth. Their research bolstered mistaken beliefs that, to many white people, appeared to be legitimate truths.

Human Remains Task Force

The Smithsonian task force responsible for repatriating these remains was established in April of 2023. The task force calls the remains “our dark inheritance.” and make up a collection of about 30,000 individuals teeth, hair, bones, skulls and tissues along with the 250 brains.

“The charge of correcting these historical injustices now falls to 21st-century stewards. This week, the Smithsonian published a report from its Human Remains Task Force, which offered recommendations regarding the future of these holdings. At work will be teams tasked with returning Native American remains and others returning non-native remains if descendants can be traced.’

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