Peabody Museum Discovers Possible Slave Remains in Its Collections

“We must begin to confront the reality of a past in which academic curiosity and opportunity overwhelmed humanity,” Harvard president Lawrence Bacow wrote. 

Photo of the entrance to the Peabody Museum
Peabody MuseumImage courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Daderot

The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology has found among its holdings the remains of 15 people of African descent who were likely alive when slavery was legal in the United States, University president Lawrence S. Bacow announced in an email today. The discovery was made during a review conducted, Bacow wrote, “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.”  

“We must begin to confront the reality of a past in which academic curiosity and opportunity overwhelmed humanity,” Bacow wrote. “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. 

“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,” he continued. 

The Peabody also holds daguerreotypes of seven enslaved individuals, commissioned by Harvard naturalist Louis Agassiz in 1850. The photographs were rediscovered in 1976; last year, a book of essays and research responding to the disturbing images was co-published by Peabody Museum Press and Aperture. 

Bacow announced the formation of a steering committee on human remains in the University’s museum collections, chaired by Evelynn Hammonds, Rosenkrantz professor of the history of science and of African and African American studies. “The committee’s initial focus will be archival research on the remains of the fifteen individuals identified in the Peabody review,” Bacow wrote. “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.” The committee’s work will also include: 

  • “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” (NAGPRA), Bacow added. Read his full message here.

“In both size and scope, the Peabody cares for one of the largest collections subject to NAGPRA, which, before the legislation was passed, included remains from more than 10,000 individuals, and still includes 7,000 individuals today,” Peabody Museum director Jane Pickering wrote in a separate message, adding that the University’s NAGPRA advisory committee looks forward to joining the work of today’s newly announced committee.  

“In its development as a premier research and teaching institution, the Peabody directly benefited from collecting practices that we recognize today ignore the wishes and values of families and communities, particularly people considered to be outside of western traditions,” Pickering wrote. “Collecting—at the Peabody and elsewhere—drove the removal of human remains and cultural materials from communities of origin, creating for example one of the largest collections of American-Indian remains in the country. These legacies are with us today, present in the language used to document collections, in past exhibitions, and in the ways collections have been used in teaching and research.” 

She added: 

The Peabody, alongside President Bacow, apologizes without equivocation for not confronting our historic collecting practices and stewardship of all of these human remains and for our failure as an institution to face the ethical and moral issues that undergirded the practices that brought them to our Museum. In 1990, when NAGPRA was passed, our Museum should have issued a formal apology. Today, we take the occasion of this current discovery and this wide-ranging institutional apology, to make a specific and formal apology for the practices that led to the Peabody’s large collection of Native-American human remains and funerary objects. 

Read her full statement here.

“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,” Bacow concluded. “It is an act of integrity more than worthy of the University’s attention and support.” 

Read more articles by: Marina N. Bolotnikova

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