March 23, 2018, 17:50

The Troubling Origins of the Skeletons in a New York Museum |

The Troubling Origins of the Skeletons in a New York Museum |

On a warm morning last September, a dozen Herero men and women paid a
visit to the American Museum of Natural History, in Manhattan. The men
wore dark suits and ties, like guests at a funeral. The women wore
colorful dresses and hats, following a tradition from Namibia, their
home country, in southern Africa. They had come to view relics of a
tragic episode in their nation’s history, and to ask the museum, after
almost a century, to give them back.

Kavemuii Murangi, an education researcher who lives in Maryland, arrived
wearing a gray suit and dark glasses that hid his gentle eyes. Inside
the museum, several curators led Murangi and his companions to a private
room upstairs. A table was covered with cardboard boxes, which the
curators invited them to open when they felt ready. Inside the boxes
were human skulls and skeletons. On many of the skulls, four-digit
numbers had been scrawled above the eye sockets. Many of the visitors
wept at the sight. “We looked at each other, we talked to each other, we
hugged each other,” Murangi told me afterward. They were staring at
remains of their own people.

A little more than a hundred years ago, German colonists stole these
bones from what they called German Southwest Africa, following a Herero
rebellion, in 1904. General Lothar von Trotha had moved quickly and
brutally to put down the uprising. “Within the German boundaries, every
Herero, with or without firearms, with or without cattle, will be shot,”
he wrote in his Vernichtungsbefehl, or extermination order. “I won’t
accommodate women and children anymore.” In what has been called the
first genocide of the twentieth century, colonists pushed Herero into
the desert and forced others into concentration camps. Sixty-five
thousand Herero died. Similar tactics killed ten thousand Nama men and
women. (Both groups have called on Germany to pay reparations, and will
appear in U.S. federal court on January 25th in an attempt to force the
country to do so.)

In 1906, Felix von Luschan, an Austrian-born anthropologist, sent
letters to colonial officers asking that they gather bones and ship them
to him in Berlin, for research. In a letter discovered by the historian
Andrew Zimmerman, one of the officers replied, “In the concentration
camps taking and preserving the skulls of Herero prisoners of war will
be more readily possible than in the country, where there is always a
danger of offending the ritual feelings of the natives.” In response to
one anthropologist’s request, the German overseers of a concentration
camp gave Herero women shards of glass and told them to scrape the flesh
from the corpses of Herero men. Luschan eventually sold his entire
personal collection, including the skulls of thousands of people from
across the world, to the American Museum of Natural History. The
purchase doubled the museum’s physical anthropology holdings and helped
establish the A.M.N.H. as a leader in the field.

In August, 2017, a German post-colonial activist, Christian Kopp, went
to see “Schädel X,” a one-man play about bone collecting in German
colonies, in New York. The play tells the story of the von Luschan
Collection, which shocked and angered Kopp. He sent an e-mail to Herero
descendants he knew in the U.S., including Murangi, and they contacted
the museum. The A.M.N.H. stores human bones in two offices and several
storage cabinets on the fifth floor. “That’s our most heavily utilized
collection,” David Hurst Thomas, a curator of anthropology at the museum
who was present for the Namibians’ visit, told me. Thomas is also the
author of “Skull Wars,” a candid and critical history of human-skeleton
collections. “We have scientists researching those materials almost on a
daily basis,” he added. Many scientific papers in evolutionary biology
have cited the von Luschan Collection. Nonetheless, the A.M.N.H. has
gradually come to acknowledge the troubling origins of many remains in
its possession. The museum does not deny that its Namibian remains, from
eight individuals, may include the products of genocide; the bones of
two people, collected at an unspecified date, were taken from locations
where Germans killed Herero in concentration camps. At least one skull
shows damage that may have resulted from violence.

I spoke with Murangi and his companions immediately after the meeting,
at a small park outside the museum. He seemed shaken and spoke slowly,
struggling at times to find words for what he had seen. Hunching his
broad shoulders, he told me that, when he was a student at Columbia
University, in the eighties, he considered the A.M.N.H. an esteemed
place of learning. Now he wonders whether his own ancestors are in a
cardboard box somewhere. “Because the genocide was so absolute, it could
be any one of our relatives,” Murangi told me. Mekahahako Komomungondo,
a Namibian-born hair stylist who lives in Yonkers, described the visit
as excruciating. “Although this genocide happened a hundred and
something years ago, it feels at is if were yesterday,” she said. “No
matter how old a wound is, once you prop it open, it becomes just as
painful.” Museum staff members said they are open to handing over the
Namibian remains. But first, descendants will have to decide what they
want to happen to them.

Many Herero descendants agree on two things: that their ancestors’ remains must return to Namibia, and that the neglected history of the Herero and Nama genocide deserves global attention.

Photograph by Ullstein Bild / Getty

When the American Museum of Natural History was founded, in 1869,
anthropologists were circling the globe, buying bones from dealers, and
digging up graves in the name of science. “For European colonial powers,
it was a worldwide phenomenon,” Holger Stoecker, a Berlin historian,
told me. Competing museums exchanged bones in a “global network” of
human remains, Stoecker’s research has shown. Many anthropologists
sought to differentiate races by physical characteristics, such as skull
size. Some disputed the significance of race; Franz Boas, who is often
called the father of modern anthropology, rejected the supposed
hierarchy of races, arguing that human behavior varied independently of
racial characteristics. Even so, during the decade that Boas worked as
an A.M.N.H. curator and, ultimately, the head of the anthropology
department, he asked an explorer to bring living Eskimos to New York for
research, then had their bodies dissected and studied when they died of
tuberculosis. Henry Fairfield Osborn was the museum’s president from
1908 to 1935, and he advocated the study of “backward races.” In 1923,
Clark Wissler, who curated the A.M.N.H. anthropology collection under
Osborn, wrote, “We are strong in anatomical collections from the
American Indians, but are lamentably weak in such collections from other
parts of the world, especially from the more primitive races.”

Late that year, Felix von Luschan put his life’s work, a collection of
more than five thousand skulls, up for sale. In a letter written weeks
before his death, he said that it contained “rarities” and “treasures,”
and set the price at forty thousand dollars—more than half a million in
contemporary terms. Documents in the A.M.N.H. archive show that, after
offering thirty thousand, Osborn agreed to the full amount.
When Luschan died, in Berlin, in early 1924, his wife, Emma, received
the funds. She shipped the skull collection to New York; she had her
husband’s remains buried in Austria, the country of his birth.

Despite his disgraceful collection practices, Luschan rejected theories
that classified some human beings as inferior and remains in high regard
among anthropologists. But his work was easily hijacked. The
anthropologist Eugen Fischer, a professor of Josef Mengele and a
prominent Nazi, also collected Herero skulls; his writings, which have
recently resurfaced on white-supremacist Web sites, often cited Luschan.
Some skulls that Luschan collected did not reach New York, and were
instead absorbed into the Nazi-led Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for
Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics. Many historians believe that
when German colonists decimated the Herero and the Nama, they laid a foundation for the Holocaust.

To cover the costs of the Herero bones, Henry Osborn solicited a major
donation to the A.M.N.H. from a German-American philanthropist of Jewish
descent, Felix Warburg, whose Manhattan mansion now houses the Jewish
Museum. Without knowing it, Warburg paid for remains that were taken
from the victims of a genocide.

The visit by the Herero descendants was not the first time that the
A.M.N.H. had been forced to reckon with the ugly history of its
collections. In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, which required institutions to inventory
and repatriate human remains. (NAGPRA applies only to museums that
receive federal funding, and does not cover human remains taken from
outside the United States.) Researchers at many museums, including the
A.M.N.H. and the Smithsonian Institution, opposed its passage. Suzan
Harjo, an activist of Cherokee and Muscogee descent who co-wrote the
law, remembers museums arguing that they owned human remains. “What we
did was change the conversation from property rights to human rights,”
she told me. In the inventory work that followed, one of the names that
surfaced was Felix von Luschan. On the island of Lanai, Luschan
personally dug up more than eighty Native Hawaiian remains, some of
which ended up in the A.M.N.H.

Seven months after the passage of NAGPRA, Edward Halealoha Ayau, an
indigenous-rights advocate from Hawaii, visited Ian Tattersall, then the
A.M.N.H.’s curator of anthropology, to ask that he comply with federal law
and return the Native Hawaiian remains. Ayau says he was shocked to find
that Tattersall had simply placed the remains on a tray and covered
them with a sheet. “It was so egregious that we kicked him out of his
own office, so that we could do our prayers and our ceremony, to
apologize to our ancestors for this kind of treatment,” Ayau said. He
told me, and others I spoke with agreed, that the A.M.N.H. has since
dramatically improved its repatriation practices. “It was very early days in the repatriation process, and frankly, we had not developed normal procedures for dealing with repatriation,” Tattersall told me, adding that he didn’t expect the visit to occur so soon. “In the last thirty years, we’ve learned a great deal, and we now have procedures in place which all parties seem to be pretty happy with.” Still, the museum
arguably missed an opportunity, in 1991, to investigate the sources of
its von Luschan Collection. If it had done so, it would have discovered,
among other grim details, the disturbing context in which its Namibian
remains were collected.

Now the museum waits on formal requests from communities of descendants
to determine the future of the Namibian remains. Of the Herero
descendants I spoke with, all agreed on two things: that the remains of
their ancestors must ultimately return to Namibia, and that the
neglected history of the Herero and Nama genocide deserves immediate
global attention. But the visitors disagreed on one crucial question:
More than a century after grave atrocities, how should a community of
the living commemorate its dead?

One month after Kavemuii Murangi visited the museum, a delegation of
Namibian leaders, including Herero and Nama chiefs, arrived in New York
with a different vision for the future of the remains. “Those bones can
no longer speak for themselves,” Vekuii Rukoro, a Herero chief, told me.
“We need to speak for those bones, and bring out the criminality of what
has happened to them.” He wants the museum to put the bones on display,
as part of an exhibition on the little-known genocide that decimated his
people, helped lay the foundations of the Holocaust, and stocked the
shelves of natural-history museums around the world. Namibia has tried a
similar approach: in 2011, when Berlin’s Charité hospital repatriated
several Herero skulls, they were transported in a casket draped with the
Namibian flag and later displayed in a glass case next to a national-liberation monument.

Barnabas Veraa Katuuo, a Namibian-American architect, supports this
proposal, and believes that an A.M.N.H. exhibition could empower the
Herero in the international fight for recognition. Katuuo is a plaintiff
in the American federal lawsuit that aims to hold Germany legally and
financially responsible for the genocide. (His attorney, Kenneth
McCallion, previously represented Holocaust survivors in a lawsuit
against French banks.) “We can’t just bury these remains,” Katuuo told
me. “As much as we hate it, we have to do it.” But others disagree just
as strongly. “That’s not morally or ethically right,” Jephta Nguherimo,
the great-grandson of a Herero genocide survivor, said. “You never see
the bones of your loved ones once they’re buried.”

Suzan Harjo told me that museums have used similar disagreements as
excuses to delay or prevent repatriation. “We used to get pitted against
each other all the time,” she said. Thomas, the A.M.N.H. curator, said
that, in this case, the museum will try to identify descendants who have
some kind of standing that allows them to represent the wider community.
Either outcome—repatriation in the near future or an exhibition—could be
possible, he added.

I asked Thomas whether the museum now prohibits research on human
remains collected in a context of violence or genocide. “We don’t look
at it like that,” he said. When possible, the museum asks descendants
what they want, but many scientists didn’t bother to record the specific
groups from which they seized remains, so large portions of the
collection are unaffiliated. “They are fair game for study,” Thomas
said. Murangi told me, “Instead of sitting on these remains until people
discover them, they should inform affected communities about human
remains in their possession.” Thomas told me that the museum lacks the
resources to research the provenance of its entire collection.

In practice, descendants often shoulder the costs, and the years of
effort, of locating and repatriating their ancestors one by one. When I
called Ayau, the Native Hawaiian advocate, he was in the Seattle
airport, accompanying the remains of four individuals on their return
journey from Dresden, Germany. Ayau, who is fifty-three, has worked on
repatriation cases for more than half his life. He has participated in a
hundred and eighteen successful repatriation cases, including fifteen
from institutions abroad. In October, the Dresden State Art Collections
apologized for collecting, and delaying the return of, Native Hawaiian
human remains. “We were healed by it. They were healed by it,” Ayau told
me. During the trip, he learned about a separate collection of Native
Hawaiian remains, in Berlin. “Here we go again,” he said. “Such is the
nature of this work.”

When I sat with Murangi in the park, after the visit to the A.M.N.H. in
September, he told me about his great-grandmother, a survivor of the
Herero genocide. She rarely spoke about it, he said, and, he thinks he
understands why. “She was raped by a German,” he said. When he
looks in the mirror, he notices that his skin is lighter than that of
many Namibians. “I don’t obsess about my looks, it’s not the struggle
that I have. It’s what happened to my people.” After Murangi became a
father, decades later, he caught himself avoiding the subject of
genocide around his three daughters. “You think about shielding them, so
that they do not have to carry the burden of genocide,” he told me. “You
just separate yourself from it completely, and put it in a locked box,
and say, ‘I don’t want to go there again.’ ”

In October, his twelve-year-old daughter chose to write a middle-school
research report about the links between the Holocaust and the Herero and
Nama genocide. She insisted on finishing it, even after a photograph of
a concentration camp made her cry. “It’s a burden,” Murangi told me. “A
burden of memory.” Recently, he decided to tell her about his visit to
the American Museum of Natural History, and the boxes of Namibian
remains stored on the fifth floor. Her response moved him almost to
tears. “I’m very proud of what you’re doing,” she told him. “I think
you’re making a difference.”


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