Order of Multitudes

Vast Collections, Painful Legacies: A Conversation with Samuel Redman on Museums, Race, and Repatriation

Samuel J. “Sam” Redman is Associate Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, who studies U.S. social, cultural, and intellectual history. Before beginning his graduate studies, Professor Redman worked in several natural history and science museums, where he became interested in issues of tangible and intangible cultural heritage and the history of American museums. These issues have continued to inform his scholarship, including his first book, Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums (Harvard University Press 2016), and his upcoming book, Prophets and Ghosts: The Story of Salvage Anthropology (Harvard University Press 2021). We sat down to discuss issues of race, research, and repatriation in museums, both in a historical and urgent, contemporary context.

Sarah Pickman: Your first book, Bone Rooms, follows how museums in the United States became repositories of human remains for both scientific research and public display over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Can you talk about how you first became interested in the history of human remains collections, and how you started to go about researching this topic?

Sam Redman: Before graduate school, I worked at the Field Museum of Natural History and the Colorado Historical Society (now Colorado History). During that time, I became interested in museum collections and their history, but the history of collecting and exhibiting human remains stood out to me as especially strange and uniquely important. While in Denver, I worked on a major repatriation project in collaboration with the National Park Service. Years later, when exploring the archives at the Smithsonian, an archivist pointed me in the direction of the Army Medical Museum records and the project really took off from there. Bone Rooms argues that the project to study race and human history through the gathering of human remains was a much larger project that involved many more individuals than is often remembered.  

Sarah Pickman: In your book, you discuss how the research questions that motivated the collecting of human remains by museums and universities – typically remains from people from marginalized communities – moved from creating racial classifications to investigating human evolution. What kinds of data, specifically, were your actors trying to collect? Why did they rely on human remains for their work?

Sam Redman: Let me answer the last question first because it helps set up a broader answer for the other question. Those collecting for museums were intent on gathering all sorts of “specimens” for natural history collections, but human bones became especially prized. The human body, of course, has many bones, more than 200. Some bones are more durable than others. The human skull is not only relatively thick and sturdy, withstanding time buried or in exposed conditions, it was thought to hold all sorts of important clues about the deceased individual. Watch any forensics show on television and you’ll see that scientists still use the skull to determine all sorts of probable things about the individual in question, but in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, anthropologists, archeologists, and others confidently collected a huge number of human bodies (but skulls above all else) for museum and medical collections. 

Now, why did they do this? What struck me when writing the book was how both the evolution of scientific debates (or debates amongst elites) about race and human history animated much of the story. In the earlier period, this was predominantly surrounding questions about race and racial difference. Over time, people gradually became more invested in studying questions related to human evolution and prehistory. Add to this mix the fact that people were still influenced by lingering ideas reminiscent of phrenology as well as emergent studies in “comparative racial anatomy.” Importantly, there was also a great deal of haphazard, almost a random-seeming number of collectors who contributed to this larger project. We often attribute these collections to important early individuals (Samuel George Morton) or major later collectors (Aleš Hrdlička) but the records show many other farmers, missionaries, military officers, medical doctors, and a whole host of others getting in on the act. When you tally up the raw numbers, these individuals contributed many more human skeletons to large repositories than even the most aggressive singular collectors. 

My aim in Bone Rooms, then, was to better understand the fuller picture of what motivated the wide array of collectors and the many different types of ideas that collectors, curators, and other scientists believed the remains could speak to. In addition to debates about science, some collectors (like Aleš Hrdlička at the Smithsonian) had in mind special exhibitions when gathering human remains. Not unlike today, many others found efforts to exhibit human remains to be abhorrent. A major argument in Bone Rooms is that while the majority of these remains were collected from Indigenous peoples across the Americas, because the project was so much about comparing the supposed “races,” it also became about collecting all kinds of human remains from across the country and around the world. The end result is that museums in the U.S. are thought to have 500,000 or more Native American individuals represented in these collections while another 500,000 Indigenous people are most likely housed in European museums or other repositories around the world. We know even less about the total number of African American remains held by museums in the U.S. but as recent history has shown they are certainly present in many of these same collections. I agree with my colleagues (including Justin Dunnavant, Delande Justinvil, and Chip Colwell) who have recently called for a major cataloging survey of these remains and a mandated response to ensure their ethical treatment in the future. 

Sarah Pickman: Recently, these kinds of collections have been thrust back into the media spotlight. In particular, the University of Pennsylvania’s reckoning with one of its collections of human remains – known as the Morton crania collection – and revelations about the remains of victims of the 1985 MOVE bombing in Philadelphia held at the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University, have attracted a great deal of attention from news outlets. As someone who has spent years researching these kinds of collections, you’ve been approached by journalists to comment on their continuing legacies, including for The New York Times, The Guardian, Slate, Democracy Now!, and Vice. What has that experience been like? Do you find that members of the public are surprised to discover how many institutions hold human remains, and how large some of these collections are?

Sam Redman: It certainly has been a remarkable year. It is extremely difficult to see people experience the pain of learning that a loved one is housed in a museum collection or that ancestors are being held away from their homeland. I empathize with these individuals and communities and can’t imagine the pain they are going through. I am heartened to see that so many people are finally taking notice of this story and thinking about it from more than one dimension. Perhaps this will culminate in long-overdue changes. And I don’t think these stories are going away any time soon. Institutions like the Smithsonian, Harvard, Penn, Berkeley, as well as the American Museum of Natural History and Field Museum of Natural History all still hold substantial human remains collections. It is not just large institutions either: smaller museums and historical societies around the country hold more modest collections of remains, and these are still critically important to consider. 

I hate to be the guy who says things like “it’s complicated.” But one example is this. A significant number of media stories recently (especially about Harvard, the Smithsonian, and the Morton Collection at Penn) make reference to African Americans who were enslaved. This is indeed a shocking reality, that the human bodies of the enslaved were dispossessed even after death, shuttled away to a private collection or a museum. But what of the remains of Black people collected under similar circumstances during the Reconstruction era immediately following the Civil War? As with those collected during the long period of enslavement, these somewhat later individuals were often collected with little or no consent. This is the era when we see the emergence of a system of sharecropping and Jim Crow laws designed to systematically disenfranchise Black people in the U.S. These individuals were similarly exploited, even if the contours to their exploitations were slightly different. I strongly believe that these remains (some of which I write about in the opening chapter of Bone Rooms) deserve the same ethical consideration as those representing remains of individuals who were subjected to enslavement during their lifetime. Again, we need to broaden our vision about the scale and nature of the problem. This should be done in consultation with the living descendants of the deceased. 

When speaking with journalists, as the “expert,” you of course need to listen to the journalist’s questions and thoughtfully respond to those queries, but I also think it is important for historians and other scholars to use these moments as a platform to teach and express their opinions on relevant topics. In other words, I come into these meetings with something to say. What is the broader context here? How did these remains end up here in the first place? The fact is that many people encountering these articles have not really thought about this subject at all, and I want people to be rightly startled by the scope and scale of the problem at hand, both in terms of the size of these collections, but also the magnitude and complexity of the ethical challenges they present to us today. I try to make clear what I think the “facts” are surrounding the topic at hand and what my subjective opinion is on those facts. I always try to direct journalists to other relevant resources and other experts, especially scholars of color who can provide different viewpoints. 

Historians are notoriously bad at predictions. But I do feel confident that the more people learn about these stories, the more we will be inclined to talk about them, dig deeper, and (hopefully) be moved to right some ethical wrongs. Through all of this, my aim is to work to describe the problem and to try to broaden our vision in regards to its scope.

Sarah Pickman: Why do you think so many institutions have, typically, been reluctant to repatriate the human remains in their collections, or to seek out descendant communities? Do you think that will increasingly change?

Sam Redman: Institutionally, many museums tend to be fairly conservative and move at a relatively slow pace. The complexity that I describe above is often used as an excuse for inaction. I also see a significant number of museum professionals, especially (but not exclusively) younger museum professionals who are working diligently to consult, listen to communities, and cede control when it comes to sensitive materials such as human remains and burial items. Part of the problem is that museums often don’t fully understand what they hold in their collections. In my vision for a Green New Deal, not unlike what took place during the New Deal of the 1930s, museums would receive an infusion of funding to hire experts from different communities around the country to better inventory and study these collections.

As I’ve said elsewhere, it feels like this year represents something of a tipping point. A critical mass of protests, thoughtful writing, and public statements made by museums suggest new movement on the issue. But, like many, I am waiting to see what follow-up actions each of these institutions will take in response. Some have already started to take action and I commend that. But more funding needs to follow public statements and the studies completed by promised exploratory committees. 

Sarah Pickman: As a professor, you also teach the history of museums and public history methodologies to students. How do you think about approaching a subject like human remains with students – especially given that many of your students may go on to work in museums themselves?

Sam Redman: One of the best guest speakers I’ve had visit my classes has been Dr. Rae Gould. Gould presently serves as the Executive Director of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative at Brown University. Pertinent to your last question, Gould’s research and teaching point to how crucial “institutional will” is in these scenarios. She describes how an absence of this “institutional will” can easily clog up the gears and lead to inaction. The process ends up echoing the original colonial dynamics present at the time of dispossessing the material in question. Gould has written about these experiences as well and I encourage anyone interested in public history and museum studies to peruse this writing.

I’m interested in how museum theory meets the real world, so I love engaging with writers and speakers who think about museums on a high level while offering practical experiences. It is great to read about an important piece of legislation like the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA), but what are its limitations? Where are the roadblocks? How does it work on a day-to-day or even year-to-year basis? I think my students gain a lot from these conversations and I certainly find them to be endlessly fascinating and important. 

Sarah Pickman: One of your current projects is a book on salvage anthropology. Could you explain what salvage anthropology is, and how it has shaped museums in ways that are still tangible today?

Sam Redman: Prophets and Ghosts: The Story of Salvage Anthropology will be published by Harvard University Press in October 2021. The book takes a fresh look at salvage anthropology as a cultural phenomenon. Salvage anthropology was a response to the widely prevalent “Vanishing Indian” idea. If Native people were indeed vanishing at the hands of extermination or assimilation, many thought something needed to be done in response. Salvage anthropology advocated for the rapid collecting of all kinds of objects, stories, music, language information, and everything else thought to potentially document a human culture. Something I found curious about the history of anthropology is that “salvage anthropology” is most often described as a short-lived phenomenon associated (almost singularly) with Franz Boas. In fact, it started decades before Boas’s arrival in the U.S. and lasted well into the twentieth century. Moreover, Native people and museum professionals are left with a fraught legacy of collecting and dispossession that leaves behind important ethical issues for us to wrestle with today. The salvage anthropology movement influenced public exhibitions, popular writing, artwork, and so much else that we commonly forget when we singularly emphasize the experience of a select few Boasians. Moreover, the story as it is often told obscures the many important Native actors expressing their own agency throughout the story. 

I won’t give away any “spoilers” exactly, but a series of interviews with Native artists and curators helped to broaden my thinking about how and why these materials are still so relevant today. Native communities, with improved access, can and will continue to use these materials in cultural revitalization projects and educational programs. Artists from these communities also use historical materials housed in museums to inspire the creation of new artworks. Writing the story of salvage anthropology moved me to completely rethink the history of museums and their collections. I hope readers will be moved to reconsider their fraught histories and possible futures as well.