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Editorials

The Legacy of Human Remains at Harvard Outlives Their Return

Many of the human remains in Harvard's museum collections are held in the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.
Many of the human remains in Harvard's museum collections are held in the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. By Truong L. Nguyen
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

For hundreds of years, human remains of likely enslaved people were locked away in museum collections at Harvard, extending the cruelty of unfreedom that these individuals — both named and unnamed — experienced during life to a loss of bodily autonomy after death. Now, following the release of the Report of the Steering Committee on Human Remains in University Museum Collections, these remains are finally set to return to the hands of their descendants.

This headline outcome, along with the University’s move to create a Human Remains Research Review Committee and a Human Remains Returns Committee to implement the report’s recommendations, are welcome steps in the University’s work to address its role in slavery and colonialism. However, given the magnitude of harm inflicted by the University’s past actions — some of the bodies were used explicitly to support the racist pseudoscience that had informed their oppression — the report as it currently stands is painfully inadequate.

Take, for example, the University’s approach to memorializing the people whose bodies were misappropriated. The published report recognizes the necessity of this first reparational step, but it puts an undue burden on “affinity groups” with a connection to the identity of the individual. These wrongs were committed by the University; the burden is on the University to come up with a plan that is more specific than broadly seeking community feedback and fairer than disproportionately burdening communities of color it has wronged in the past. We urge the committees in creation to rethink the solutions outlined in this initial report and use their extensive expertise to draft something wiser and more specific in its recommendations.

Amid the bureaucratic morass of committee creations and open-ended recommendations, the theme that comes across most clearly in the report is that of a Harvard ill-equipped to wrestle with racist elements of history and broadly reluctant to take accountability for the trauma it has caused. When University President Lawrence S. Bacow emailed the community on the report’s findings, he made it a point to mention Harvard’s “efforts to care for one of the largest collections of Native American ancestors in the country and to address our entanglements with slavery.” At best, this language is tastelessly self-congratulatory. At worst, it gravely understates and misrepresents the severity of Harvard’s past actions.

We might be more inclined to take the report as a good-faith first step — and not a performative gesture — if Harvard were not, at this moment, actively resisting efforts by Tamara K. Lanier to sue for emotional distress inflicted by the University’s possession of photos of an enslaved person she claims as her direct ancestors.

This case reminds us that human remains constitute just a particularly acute subset of the problematic holdings of Western museums. Many of the items currently in Harvard’s collections were collected before more recent restrictions on the ethical acquisition of artifacts, and Harvard should include careful examination of prior acquisitions in its efforts to correct past misdeeds.

More broadly, however, Harvard’s return of these remains does not mark the end of the University’s role in slavery and settler colonialism; the epistemic damage of research conducted in this vein will persist long after the material remains leave campus. Harvard needs a permanent place to reckon with its role in some of the cruelest parts of human history. The University must make any records of academic work connected to these remains, including the procedure of storage itself, publicly available — perhaps, as we have previously opined, in the form of a “museum of institutional failings” — so that the institution’s contributions to epistemologies of slavery and settler colonialism are not swept under the rug or forgotten.

Even as Harvard takes comprehensive steps to purge its collections of misappropriated remains, it should be clear that much work remains. This report’s release does not mark the end of the University’s role in reckoning with slavery and settler colonialism. It does not negate the years of harm done to so many individuals and vulnerable groups. The epistemic scars of race science — built, in part, on the pseudoscientific analysis of remains in Harvard’s collections — remain. Harvard’s task is just beginning.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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