An investigation into the Smithsonian found that dozens of brains obtained in the early 1900s — often for eugenics research — weren’t taken with the family’s permission.
One of the institution’s then-anthropologists, Ales Hrdlicka, used the help of local doctors and hospitals to build his “racial brain collection,” according to The Washington Post.
By the time the collection was built, it included almost 300 brains collected internationally. Over a quarter of the brains were from locals to the Washington DC area — and 48 of those brains were from Black people, per the Post. It accounted for a disproportionate amount of the Black population in the area at the time, the paper found. The Post reported that
The primary purpose of obtaining the brains was to try to disprove baseless eugenics theory about race differences ,. Families of the victims often did not know that the brains of their loved ones had been taken ..
Most were collected by the institution in the 1930s and 40s, per the Post’s sprawling investigation, based on Smithsonian Records obtained by the Post. The Natural History Museum still holds 254 in Maryland in a storage facility.
In a post published in late November by historian and Smithsonian Institution secretary Lonnie Bunch III, the museum said it was working to “rectify these wrongs” and prevent their recurrence.
“While this practice has revealed important details about ancient civilizations, there are now a number of ethical concerns that have changed the scientific method,” Bunch wrote. “Most of the remains still in our possession were acquired decades ago without the proper consent of the individuals, their close relatives or their tribal communities.”
The Institution also announced a task force dedicated to finding recommendations for the collection.
The Post added that the 1989 passage of the National Museum of the American Indian Act had facilitated the repatriation of thousands of other remains.
“This difficult task requires us to use the few records that we have in order to determine who these people are and who might still be living relatives. When it’s not possible to identify a direct descendant, we will work with descendant communities,” Bunch wrote. “That said, we are committed to standardizing the ethical return and repatriation process as much as possible, while maintaining the flexibility to accommodate the wishes of descendant communities.”
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