Posted on August 30, 2023

This Is How the Smithsonian Will Reckon With Our Dark Inheritance

Lonnie G. Bunch III, Washington Post, August 20, 2023

As a historian, I have always felt that a full, unvarnished, honest telling of history is the only way for us to move forward as a people, as a nation and as institutions. All of us are profoundly shaped by the past, for good and for ill, and the Smithsonian — like so many other museums and universities — is grappling with a legacy once deemed acceptable but that is so clearly ethically wrong today.

The Post’s recent coverage regarding the human remains still housed in our collections is certainly illustrative of the Smithsonian’s darkest history. This is our inheritance, and we accept the responsibility to address these wrongs to the fullest extent possible.

Anthropologist Ales Hrdlicka served as the head of the Smithsonian’s physical anthropology division from 1903 to 1941, when the majority of the human remains in our collections were obtained. During Hrdlicka’s four decades at the institution, he oversaw the acquisition of hundreds of human brains and thousands of other remains. The overwhelming majority of these remains were taken without the consent of the deceased or their family members, and Hrdlicka took particular interest in the remains of Indigenous people and people of color to undergird his search for scientific evidence of white superiority.


The Smithsonian has been working to repatriate human remains in our collections for more than 30 years, and efforts to expand and accelerate that work are well underway. Even before the National Museum of the American Indian Act was passed, in 1989, the National Museum of Natural History had been voluntarily returning objects and human remains to Native American tribes. Since the passage of the act in 1989 and its amendment in 1996, the Smithsonian has repatriated the remains of more than 5,000 people.

To date, we have focused on the repatriation of Native American remains to comply with federal law, but earlier this year, the Smithsonian established its Human Remains Task Force to develop an institutional policy that addresses the future of all human remains still held in our collections. {snip}


This work is not just about the necessity of repatriation, it’s also about interrogating and dismantling the racism that inspired these collections in the first place. Museums and universities throughout the world are contending with their own human remains collections. We are determined to be at the forefront of a long-overdue reckoning about ethical returns and repatriation.