The American Museum of Natural History is to remove all human remains from display as part of a policy overhaul.
The museum holds the remains of more than 12,000 individuals, many of whom are believed to have come from enslaved, indigenous and colonised populations.
The museum's recently appointed president, Sean M Decatur, said that many of the skeletons had been collected as part of museum policies that aimed to advance racist and eugenicist theories about human evolution. There are also question marks over the legal and ethical circumstances of their acquisition.
The remains include victims of Germany’s early 20th-century genocide in what is now Namibia, as well as individuals from Native American and other Indigenous populations.
Other sets of remains include the skeletons of five Black adults dug up from a cemetery for enslaved people during building works in 1903, and the “medical collection” – the remains of around 400 New Yorkers from impoverished communities whose unclaimed bodies were given to medical schools in the 1940s.
The museum currently has 12 display cases featuring human remains.
The changes to the human remains policy were announced in an email to staff last week by Decatur, who said the museum would take steps to improve the storage of human remains and allocate more resources to determining their origin and identities.
“Human remains collections were made possible by extreme imbalances of power,” he told staff, according to the New York Times.
“Moreover, many researchers in the 19th and 20th centuries then used such collections to advance deeply flawed scientific agendas rooted in white supremacy – namely the identification of physical differences that could reinforce models of racial hierarchy.”
Decatur added: “Identifying a restorative, respectful action in consultation with local communities must be part of our commitment.”
He said that none of the remains “are so essential to the goals and narrative of the exhibition as to counterbalance the ethical dilemmas presented by the fact that human remains are in some instances exhibited alongside and on the same plane as objects”.
The policy overhaul coincides with an investigation by the online arts magazine Hyperallergic, which revealed the extent of human remains held by the museum. The report found that little resource had been allocated to identifying or repatriating the remains, and there were few ways for communities to identify whether their ancestors were held in the museum.