Looking After

Zoé Samudzi on museums and human remains

Te Papa staff sit next to a wooden box containing a mummified Maori head at Te Papa Museum on May 12, 2011, in Wellington, New Zealand. One of the heads, believed to be that of a warrior killed in battle, is the first of 16 that were sent back to New Zealand after France passed a law in 2010 stating the remains should be allowed to return home. Photo: Mike Heydon/Getty Images.

THIS APRIL, the University of Pennsylvania admitted to the public that human remains from the charred rubble of the devastating May 13, 1985, police bombing of the MOVE complex in West Philadelphia had been given to Alan Mann, an anthropologist on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania from 1969 to 2001. He was asked to provide forensic analysis of the bones; they are now believed to belong to either or both Tree and Delisha Africa, thirteen and twelve years old, respectively, at the time of their death. Mann took the bones with him when he moved to Princeton University, but they were subsequently returned to the Penn Museum, where they have been kept for the past half decade—all this time, the girls’ mother believed their remains had been interred. In a forensic-anthropology course taught by professor Janet Monge, pieces of pelvic and femur bones were used as a “case study,” with the instructor offering graphic descriptions of their diminutive size, the damage they sustained, and their smell: “Like an older-style grease,” she said. Another set of remains belonging to the bombing’s victims was ordered for cremation and disposal of by Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley in 2017, but was found in a box in the basement of the city medical examiner’s office in mid-May.

The news of these indignities came shortly after the University of Pennsylvania announced plans for the repatriation of remains in the Samuel G. Morton Cranial Collection. This anatomical collection was property of, and named for, the Philadelphia-born natural scientist whose pioneering (for the genre) ethnographic work in the nineteenth century laid the scientific foundation for the racist claim that color-based (i.e., race-based) differences are species differences. In particular, his celebrated work alleges that intellectual ability can be deduced from cranial measurements, and he collected skulls from around the world as evidence, including those of enslaved people. The university apologized for its “unethical possession of human remains” and vowed to “reassess [its] practices of collecting, stewarding, displaying, and researching human remains.”

The refusal to repatriate is a part of a production of eternality, which is also a disruption of death.

Across the Atlantic, construction workers on the campus of the Freie Universität in Berlin discovered a pit filled with bones in July 2014. Forensic experts concluded that the 250 liters of human-bone fragment were a combination of adult and child remains buried decades ago and suspected to belong to research subjects of the so-called Angel of Death, Josef Mengele, a Nazi physician who performed brutal racialist experiments on Jewish and other prisoners at Auschwitz. The university sits on the former grounds of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics, Germany’s premier institution for racial-hygiene science, whose construction and research were partially financed by the Rockefeller Foundation in the 1930s. Mengele’s camp research provided physical specimens—bones, eyes, tissue, organs, and other parts—to his mentor, Professor Ottmar von Verschuer, the director of the institute, for further analysis. While the forensic analysts of Freie Universität were not aware of this institutional history, its faculty and management certainly were. Despite Germany’s alleged sacralization of Holocaust memory per the cultural mandate of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (reckoning with and overcoming the past), the bones were quietly burned in the Ruhleben crematorium six months after their discovery, their ashes buried in the basement. University president Günter M. Ziegler is obstructing more archaeological excavations on the campus, instead opting to further distance the institution from the historical violence carried out on its grounds. The parallel delays, denials, and desecrations are uncanny.

Far from unique, the collecting, holding, studying, archiving, and displaying of human remains is inextricably linked to the coloniality of the museum and the ethnographic archive. Scores of prominent institutions around the world hold human remains, including the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, the Hearst Museum of Anthropology in Berkeley, the British Museum in London, the San Diego Museum of Man, the Ethnological Museum of Berlin, the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, and Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Equal parts trophies, relics, and educational devices, these collections reveal an anxiety at the core of the imperial project. There’s a potent psychological impetus to keep human remains, a necrophiliac impulse; it governs the long-standing practice of excavating, proudly displaying, and fiercely protecting claimed ownership over (and crudely disposing of) the bodies of the racialized dead. These colonial archives, in many ways, are an attempt to mediate civilizational collapse.

The Musée du Congo in Tervuren, Belgium. Photo: Wikipedia Commons.

The social-psychological concept of terror-management theory (TMT) describes not only the anxiety produced by the inevitability of one’s own individual death, but also the shared cultural mythologies and practices deployed to offer a sense of death-transcendence or immortality. This can be literal, as with the creation of religious afterlives, or it can be a symbolic extension of the immortalized cultural self (e.g., the legacy of the nuclear family, canonical artworks, etc.).1 Regardless, these “cultural modes of transcending death allow us to feel that we are significant contributors to a permanent world,” write Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski in The Worm at the Core (2015), a text that attempts to explicate and codify TMT. Central to the theory is the idea of self-esteem, which drives our belief in our own significance and resilience and permits us to forget the inescapability of our demise. Motivated by the need to affirm the “correctness of our worldviews,” human beings constantly search for individuated meaning, just as the institutional archive of the West seeks to unequivocally assert the truths of empire.

In this archive, imperial truths are reinscribed and affirmed to the public as fact through the arrogation, abstracted interpretation, and display of the cultural and biological material of colonized peoples. Ariella Aïsha Azoulay notes how the contemporary sense of the word art emerged only in the eighteenth century and was linked to a desire for mastery over time: “Art” exists as a part of an imperial dislocation that forces Indigenous communities into a forward-moving linear order. The accumulation of art and artifacts by museums and archives, part of the same process of plunder and dispossession, is “a way to avoid engaging with the world shared with others.”2 The museum and its archive represent tensions among white supremacy’s founding fictions (e.g., scientific racism), Spenglerian fears and warnings of Western civilizational decline (which notably influenced the respectable white-nationalist scholarship of Samuel Huntington’s 1996 Clash of Civilizations and 2004 Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity), and the contestations of white power by movements for the liberation of, and the expansion of rights and self-determining abilities for, marginalized people. In this archive, the skulls of Black slaves and the bones of Black revolutionaries serve as evidence of individuals who were property of and vanquished by empire—returning them would mark a small but necessary step toward repair.

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo: Wikipedia Commons.

This epistemicide is profound alienation: a product of the twinned actions of attempting to annihilate a people and re-create them in the reverse image of their colonial masters. Here, the word epistemicide also defines the maintenance work performed on literal remains in order to test and prove eugenicist hypotheses about racial difference. In her essay “remain |un|conquered,” Eunsong Kim describes how archival storage facilities are cold and alienating by design; the artifacts held hostage are fixed in “the condition of object immortalization.” She characterizes the museum as a mausoleum that traps objects in time, a notable continuation of the colonial production of racialized space, and considers the coevolution of the museum and the penitentiary.3 The objects are preserved in carefully climate-controlled conditions that ensure “protection against touch, exemption from humidity, from environment, from too much heat or too little, from the notion of unruly temperatures.” It is this fastidious conservation effort, ironically, that excludes the objects from any “context and history” beyond that which is afforded by the institution. Such an atmosphere finds a natural complement in Christina Sharpe’s conceptualization of anti-Black weather: She juxtaposes the chilled artificial ecology of the museum archive with the climate of degradation that transforms Black being,4 extracting Black personhood from its own varied socialities and supplanting that existence with the frame of triumphant white domination.

In service of empire, this macabre archive eternalizes two things. Firstly, the fear of mortality in the form of civilizational decline is inextricably linked to the desire to exercise godlike dominion over the natural world, of which global Indigenous populations are considered a part. The common thread between anxious and dutiful civilizational maintenance and refusals to repatriate is the Western obsession with permanence (to link the psychological to the ontological), which can clash with other cultural understandings that some things are not meant to exist forever. The refusal to repatriate is a part of a production of eternality, which is also a disruption of death: Permanent maintenance prevents proper transition because of the absence of funerary rites (or the disruption of ancestralization by the exhuming of buried bodies; Thomas Jefferson’s disinterment of a Monacan Indian burial mound near Monticello led many to credit him as the “first American archaeologist”), a further posthumous insult to the many peoples who have died of “unnatural causes” (concentration-camp labor and exposure, colonially introduced illness, poverty by way of the elimination of cattle and other lifeblood resources). Other objects, such as Hoa Hakananai’a, one of the great moai monoliths from Rapa Nui (Easter Island) currently held in the British Museum, are understood by Indigenous Rapa Nui people as living incarnations of their ancestors. In addition to requesting restitution for the statue’s illegal plunder from Orongo in 1868, the Rapa Nui have offered to hand-carve a replica for the museum to display. The museum’s citation of the “great public benefit” in its refusal of this exchange represents a treatment of Indigenous originality as fetish object: The answer of who gets to be a part of the “public” and whose “benefit” matters most are at the heart of this museological debate.

Thomas Cole, Destruction, 1836, oil on canvas, 39 1⁄2 × 63 1⁄2".

Institutions are empowered in this keeping, secondly, by the Western regime of property rights. Ceaseless protest and organizing from Indigenous communities brought about the 1990 passage of the Native American Graves Protections Act (NAGPRA)—this law requires institutions receiving federal funding to repatriate Indigenous cultural items and lays out procedures for returning accidental discoveries made on federal or tribal land. There is, however, no comparable protection for the graves or remains of Black American people, nor is there international legislation guiding repatriation across borders. Amid mounting demands for more transparency from institutions about the fate of African American remains, there was, in the wake of the revelations about the bones of Tree and Delisha Africa, yet another urgently necessary call for an African American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which would protect vulnerable African American burial sites across the United States and require a “full public inventory of . . . human-remains collections” receiving federal funding, among other critical reforms.

The discretionary nature of return and the decision of the overwhelming majority of institutions to keep their plunder necessitate an honest auditing of the purpose of museums in the postcolonial present. Jasbir Puar describes the “carceral assemblage of the settler museum” as a material matrix benefiting gentrification and housing displacement, weapons manufacturing, the construction of prisons, corporate corruption, and money laundering for elites. The museum is just one tendril of the state’s enclosure of natural and human resources and entanglement with private capital. It cannot be decolonized per se, but control over its day-to-day functioning can and must be wrested from oligarchs and made more firmly democratized and accountable to anticolonial publics. In 2003, the government of New Zealand authorized its national museum, Te Papa, to create a program to repatriate the remains—skeletal remains and toi moko (preserved heads of Māori people whose faces had been decorated with traditional tā moko facial tattoos)—of Māori and Moriori from international institutions. In constant dialogue with local communities, the Karanga Aotearoa Repatriation Programme simply serves as a representative and custodian with the singular goal of returning remains to descendants for burial. The museum can no longer function as a display cabinet for the spoils of robber barons past and present; its survival demands both repatriation and transformation.

Zoé Samudzi is an art writer and sociologist researching German imperialism and the Ovaherero and Nama genocide.


1. Jeff Schimel, Joseph Hayes, and Michael Sharp, “A Consideration of Three Critical Hypotheses,” in Handbook of Terror Management Theory, eds. Clay Routledge and Matthew Vess (London: Academic Press, 2018), 1-30.

2. Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism (London: Verso, 2019).

3. In his 1988 essay “The Exhibitionary Complex,” Tony Bennett writes, “The exhibitionary complex and the carceral archipelago develop over roughly the same period—the late eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century—and achieve developed articulations of the new principles they embodied within a decade or so of one another.”

4. Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016).