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Steering Committee on Human Remains in Harvard Museum Collections

Dear Members of the Harvard Community,

Our University is home to some of the most extraordinary scholarly resources in the world, including museum collections comprising some 30 million artifacts, objects, and specimens. Among these are the remains of more than 22,000 individuals, most of them held by either the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology or the Warren Anatomical Museum. It is a staggering figure—made even more so because of its imprecision. We know much about some of these individuals because they were accompanied by detailed records of their unique experiences, but others were afforded no biographical information. The latter circumstance is a testament, in some cases, to the status of individuals at the times of their deaths or to the standards under which their remains came to be collected.

We must begin to confront the reality of a past in which academic curiosity and opportunity overwhelmed humanity. Earlier this year, the Peabody undertook a review of its collections as part of an assessment of its ethical stewardship practices and in the spirit of continuing efforts to understand the legacy of slavery at Harvard. As a result, I was informed of the remains of fifteen individuals of African descent who were or were likely to have been alive during the period of American enslavement. These individuals represent a chapter in our history that we must confront. I commend our faculty and staff at the Peabody for responding to our national conversation on race by subjecting to greater scrutiny their holdings of human remains.

This important work is long overdue. 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. 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.

I am grateful to Evelynn Hammonds, Barbara Gutmann Rosenkrantz Professor of the History of Science and of African and African American Studies, who has accepted my invitation to serve as chair of a University-wide steering committee on human remains in the University’s museum collections. The committee’s initial focus will be archival research on the remains of the fifteen individuals identified in the Peabody review. Guided by their findings, the committee will consult within and beyond the Harvard community to consider options for the return of these remains, as well as their burial or reburial, commemoration, and memorialization. These efforts will serve as a pilot to inform the remainder of the charge, namely:

The creation of a comprehensive survey of human remains present across all University museum collections, as well as their use in current teaching and research;

The development of a University-wide policy on the collection, display, and ethical stewardship of human remains in the University’s museum collections; and

The proposal of principles and practices that address research, community consultation, memorialization, possible repatriation, burial or reburial, and other care considerations.

The work of the committee will necessarily be informed by our existing efforts to care for one of the largest collections of American Indian remains in the country, as well as our implementation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The committee will also draw on scholarly perspectives from across the University and intersect with the Initiative on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery, engaging a wide range of expertise to address timely questions about the responsibility of institutions to society. I have requested that a summary of the results of the committee’s activities be made available in the form of a public report in the fall of 2021. 

One measure of any community is how it treats its least powerful members. We cannot remedy the indignities visited upon some of the individuals whose remains are housed in our museum collections while they lived, but we can help to ensure that they are treated in death with the care that we would wish for ourselves. It is an act of integrity more than worthy of the University’s attention and support.

Lawrence S. Bacow

Please click here to read a related message from Jane Pickering,William & Muriel Seabury Howells Director of the Peabody Museum