An interdisciplinary panel of Harvard affiliates discussed the ethics of possessing human remains for research, education, or exhibition in University collections during a Harvard Medical School Center for Bioethics webinar on Thursday.
The event — moderated by Robert D. Truog, the director of the HMS Center for Bioethics — is the third installment of annual Black History Month seminars hosted by the HMS Center for Bioethics and the National Center for Bioethics Research and Health Care at Tuskegee University. Speakers discussed the University’s archival research efforts and the development of academic curricula with ancestral remains.
The panelists included HMS professor Scott H. Podolsky ’93, Peabody Museum Director Jane Pickering, Warren Anatomical Museum and Countway Library of Medicine curator Dominic W. Hall, and History professor Philip J. Deloria. Evelynn M. Hammonds, the chair of the Steering Committee on Human Remains in University Museum Collections, also participated in the discussion.
During the event, Deloria highlighted the importance of examining Harvard as the “possessors of human remains.”
“We’re not responsible for this, but we are responsible to it,” he said. “So in some ways the reason we do this is for us as an institution to make amends and make repairs.”
The discussion served as a reflective forum in response to a September 2022 report released by the Steering Committee, which offered recommendations on ethically returning the remains of enslaved individuals of African descent and those of other ethnic origins.
The report comes nearly two years after the University faced accusations of violating the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The University has since launched a widespread repatriation campaign to return various body parts and cultural artifacts kept in Harvard repositories and collections, especially those held in the Peabody Museum.
“I think where I really see where NAGPRA can help inform moving forward with other remains is through what people have learned from tribes about treatment, about what matters to them,” Pickering said.
The Steering Committee was formed after a review by the Peabody Museum revealed it held the human remains of 15 people of African descent who were likely enslaved. Since the January 2021 report detailing these findings, the committe found remains of four additional people of Brazilian and Caribbean origin — who were identified as likely also enslaved. The committee is now tasked with developing a University policy on museum stewardship practices, as well as helping museum staff connect with affected cultural groups.
Pickering discussed the implications of ethical stewardship for an anthropology museum and addressed Harvard’s fraught history with ancestral remains.
“As someone who’s really charged to not only think about these issues but also act, it was very powerful to have the expertise and thinking of a really incredible group of people,” Pickering said.
During the event, Hammond urged Harvard to establish a Human Remains Research Review Committee to engage with museum staff members on evaluating requests by Harvard and external scholars to use human remains for research.
Hall said an important question is to ask if the knowledge gleaned from researching the human remains is “worth it.”
“One of the things that happens when you do that research is you create new knowledge that you then have to store, curate, and steward and possibly protect,” Hall said. “So you really have to ask yourself that hard question — what is the purpose of generating this new information?”
In response to a question about the role of doing genetic sequencing on remains, Hammond said she was “not convinced” by the claims for further research, adding that the process demonstrated these individuals were still viewed as “as objects to be studied.”
The committee is also working towards developing a University-wide policy on the collection and display of human remains in addition to establishing a framework of principles and practices to connect with affected cultural groups during repatriation and memorialization measures.
—Staff writer Jasmine Palma can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Ammy M. Yuan can be reached at email@example.com.