Smithsonian Institution Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III has apologized for the museum and research complex’s bleak history of collecting human brains. Earlier this month, the Washington Post reported that the majority of these physical remains had been taken from deceased Indigenous and Black individuals without prior knowledge or consent from them or their families. The investigation was led by Post reporters who reviewed thousands of documented studies, field notes, and correspondences, as well as interviewed over four dozen Smithsonian officials, historical experts, and affected descendants and community members.
On Sunday, August 20, the Washington Post published an opinion piece by Bunch that reckoned with the unethical practices of a former Smithsonian curator. As head of the museum’s physical anthropology division from 1903 to 1941, Ales Hrdlicka “oversaw the acquisition of hundreds of human brains and thousands of other remains,” which the Post investigation found involved the recording and classification of individuals’ body parts by demographic details including sex, race, and age.
A “longtime member” of the American Eugenics Society, Hrdlicka was a proponent of since-debunked racist theories that argued White people were “superior” and that individual intelligence and physical characteristics were determined by one’s race, according to the report. The Post found that museum collectors, anthropologists, and scientists targeted “people who were hospitalized, poor, or lacked immediate relatives to identify or bury them,” and even uprooted burial grounds and gravesites under Hrdlicka’s supervision. Furthermore, during the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, which featured a racist Philippine Exposition where mostly White spectators could “gawk” at “primitive” Filipino communities living in an artificial village, Hrdlicka took advantage of the international event as an opportunity to acquire brains from individuals who died during their seven-month stay on the land plot.
Hrdlicka managed the museum’s collection of 268 human brains until his death in 1943, according to the Post. Following Hrdlicka’s death, the Smithsonian obtained an additional four brains, of which three were consensual donations.
“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,” Bunch wrote, calling these practices “abhorrent and dehumanizing work.”
“As secretary of the Smithsonian, I condemn these past actions and apologize for the pain caused by Hrdlicka and others at the institution who acted unethically in the name of science, regardless of the era in which their actions occurred,” Bunch continued.
The Post also reported that the Smithsonian has made minimal progress in its efforts to repatriate the stolen brains to familial descendants and ancestral heirs, as the museum currently requires individuals to submit a formal claim, making the return of these human remains “virtually impossible” as most eligible applicants have no knowledge of the brain collection’s existence. The museum still has at least 255 human brains in its collection but has only repatriated four over the years, per the investigation.
Addressing these findings, Bunch wrote in his opinion that the museum has been working to return the human remains in its collections for more than three decades, even before the repatriation of these individuals was federally mandated, per the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in 1989 and the implementation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990.
The Smithsonian Institution has not yet responded to Hyperallergic‘s request for additional comment on the status of repatriation efforts.
Since 1989, Bunch said that the Smithsonian has repatriated more than 5,000 human remains. The institution currently has at least 30,000 human remains dating back to the 1700s. Earlier this year, the museum assembled a 13-person task force to develop overarching policy that “addresses the future of all human remains still held in our collections” by the end of this year.
“Our forthcoming policy will finally recognize these remains not as objects to be studied but as human beings to be honored. It is a long-overdue shift, and I regret that human bodies were ever treated with such disrespect at our institution,” Bunch wrote.
Bunch added that the Smithsonian has been in talks with the Philippine government and the National Museum of the Philippines in regard to the return of the Filipino human remains taken from the 1904 World’s Fair, as well as from patients at the Philippine Medical School and from the Philippines by US Army officials.