The Smithsonian’s Human Remains Task Force Calls for New Repatriation Policies

The report provides recommendations regarding the return of human remains in the Institution’s collections

National Museum of Natural History at night
The National Museum of Natural History holds the majority of the human remains in the Smithsonian's collections. Salwan Georges / The Washington Post via Getty Images

The Smithsonian Institution holds human remains from more than 30,000 individuals in its collections. Most of these holdings—including bones, teeth, tissues and about 250 brains—were acquired in the 19th and early 20th centuries under dubious circumstances.

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.

“We are committed to being a leader in all respects, and that means addressing the wrongs of our past by taking steps to ethically return collections and humanely steward any human remains in our care,” says Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III in a statement. “The work of repatriation began several decades ago, and we recognize that it requires a long-term commitment to complete. In recent months, we have made significant progress in this area.”

The long-anticipated report is the culmination of work conducted by the task force, which includes Smithsonian employees and outside experts, since its formation in April 2023. The group crafted Smithsonian-wide recommendations regarding the ethical return of human remains, which the Institution will ultimately use to create and implement new official policies. These changes will primarily affect the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), where the majority of these holdings reside, and the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), which houses the rest.

The recommendations emphasize that consent is a vital prerequisite for using human remains in any capacity. Going forward, the report advises, the Smithsonian should not collect, display or use remains for research purposes without the informed consent of the deceased or their descendants.

The Smithsonian should also offer to return remains taken without consent to the descendants of those individuals; per the task force, “reasonable efforts” should be made to locate those descendants. If no descendants can be found, the remains should be offered to appropriate community representatives or organizations. In cases where no community can be determined, the Smithsonian should create a process for respectfully burying the remains.

Like many 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. Hrdlička harbored ambitions of proving now-debunked theories of white superiority known today as scientific racism.

Days later, the Post published an op-ed by Bunch addressing the investigation. It ran under the headline “This is how the Smithsonian will reckon with our dark inheritance.” Bunch described Hrdlička’s legacy as “abhorrent and dehumanizing work [that was] carried out under the Smithsonian’s name.”

“As Secretary of the Smithsonian, I condemn these past actions and apologize for the pain caused by Hrdlička and others at the Institution who acted unethically in the name of science, regardless of the era in which their actions occurred,” Bunch wrote. “I recognize, too, that the Smithsonian is responsible both for the original work of Hrdlička and others who subscribed to his beliefs, and for the failure to return the remains he collected to descendant communities in the decades since.”

Bunch noted that the Smithsonian’s work to repatriate human remains goes back more than 30 years. Early efforts intensified after the 1989 passage of the National Museum of the American Indian Act, which requires the Smithsonian to inventory its Native American human remains and repatriate them upon request.

“To date, we have focused on the repatriation of Native American remains to comply with federal law,” Bunch wrote. “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.”

Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History
The task force suggested creating a new repatriation team at the National Museum of Natural History. Hugh Talman and James Di Loreto / Smithsonian Institution

The Smithsonian has repatriated the remains of more than 5,000 individuals to date, with many thousands of human remains still to be processed. In a December follow-up to its initial investigation, the Post published a report in which former Smithsonian employees spoke of facing internal resistance on repatriating remains during the 1990s. Other staff from that period acknowledged that the process, by necessity, takes time to ensure the proper descendants receive the remains. The Post also cited a 2011 government report that said “it could take several more decades to complete” repatriating all the human remains in the collections.

In the new report, the task force suggests expediting returns under the NMAI Act, adding that NMAI and NMNH “should proactively engage descendants and tribes rather than waiting for them to initiate requests.” Because nearly half of the human remains still held by the Smithsonian are not covered by the NMAI Act, the report also recommends creating a repatriation team at NMNH that’s not linked to the law.

The changes arrive amid similar repatriation efforts nationwide. In January, new federal regulations requiring museums to “obtain free, prior and informed consent” from tribal officials before putting certain Native American artifacts on view went into effect. (This rule is an update to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which does not apply to the Smithsonian, though the new report notes that the 1990 law “enshrined many of the same principles” as the NMAI Act.)

“Historic inequities facilitated the expropriation, curation and unconsented use of human bodies,” writes the task force. “This is our unfortunate inheritance. … As the Smithsonian moves forward, it should do so thoughtfully and as rapidly as possible without doing further harm to individuals, families or communities.”

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