On the third floor of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, tucked away in the very back corner, stands the Hall of Reptiles and Amphibians. Its large wooden cases spring up in two columns down the middle of the hall, boxed in by taxidermied crocodiles. Walking through the door frame feels like stepping 40 years back in time — the lighting is sepia toned, the room painted in varying shades of tan and muted green and no flashing screens with interactive prompts wink enticingly at you. As a result, visitors tend to walk straight through the reptiles toward the modern and polished Sharks exhibit, not even sparing a glance at the Galapagos tortoise or the Komodo dragons — if they even come this way at all.
But directly across from the door to the Sharks corridor is my all-time favorite exhibit that the museum has ever offered: a hyper-realistic scene of two leatherback sea turtles nesting on the beach. Their dappled turquoise skin and ridged shells are blanketed in sand, a scene that has always caught my eye. As a toddler, I would watch intensely as the plastic seagrass seemed to magically wave in the non-existent salty breeze, blowing in with it memories of kites lost to the wind and drip castles built on the shore. Every time it was raining or snowing or just too hot to go outside, my babysitter would park my stroller in the temperature-controlled hall of the museum. I would run immediately to the sea turtles, reaching my face and hands as close to the glass as humanly possible without actually touching it. To touch it, see, would be to break the spell, to reduce it to a plastic reconstruction rather than a snapshot in time.
When my brother and I were in elementary school, our parents would often bring us along on my dad’s work trips involving gallery and museum openings. As an adult, it’s easy to appreciate the many wonderful works of art we saw and museums we had access to, but back then, my brother and I preferred to play tag, roping the other kids at the work events into our antics. We would hide behind sculptures as our parents perused the works on display, peeking wide-eyed out from behind a curtain until we inevitably made direct eye contact with a disapproving adult and fell into fits of giggles. All this is to say that I essentially grew up in museums in the same way that one might grow up in national parks or on a farm. Though I never got bored of their grandeur, the sheer wealth of knowledge that they held within their expansive walls, I am still completely enthralled by museums.
This past summer, I had the opportunity to return to AMNH through an internship called the Museum Education and Employment Program, affectionately known as MEEP. I, along with a group of 27 other college students, spent the summer learning the ins and outs of the museum, creating research projects about dioramas of our choice and facilitating conversations with visitors. I will probably never have a better job.
Next door to the MEEP home base, AMNH was running a different youth program for four young women who were members of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, a federally-recognized Indigenous tribe in Western Oregon. We were briefly introduced to these women while they spent two weeks at AMNH learning about and interacting with Tomanowos, also known as the Willamette Meteorite.
The Willamette Meteorite has maintained its prime position in the Hall of the Universe since the hall’s opening in 2000, but the meteorite has been on display at AMNH since 1906. Encircled by stainless steel that has always reminded me of Saturn’s rings is 15 tons of iron ore, supported by steel beams that reach down into the depths of the museum’s foundation. The largest meteorite ever found in the US, Tomanowos is dark, hulking and entirely otherworldly, even when compared to other meteorites — only 600 out of the 25,000 known meteorites on Earth are like the Willamette meteorite and possess an iron and nickel core of an early planet that veered too close to the Sun.
It has no known impact crater.
Scientists believe that Tomanowos arrived on Earth during the last Ice Age, when glaciers and ice sheets covered Canada. When the Earth thawed and the ice sheets melted, massive floods raced through Northern America, picking up anything in their paths. As a result, Tomanowas, which had landed on one of the former glaciers, was transported to the Upper Willamette Valley: the ancestral homeland of the Clackamas people, where it embedded itself into the earth. The Clackamas revered Tomanowos as a representative of the Sky People, their deities, and would venerate the meteorite and interact with it regularly. To the Clackamas, Tomanowos is a divine, living being that represents the union of the sky, water and earth: he came from the sky, collected rainwater in his crevices, and lived in the earth. They used the water in his fissures to bless their arrows, create binding contracts and perform many ceremonies and rituals.
As the Clackamas and other indigenous groups in Portland were driven off their lands by American westward expansion, white settlers laid claim to the meteorite and the land that it was on. In 1905, the Willamette meteorite was purchased from the Oregon Iron and Steel company, and then eventually donated to AMNH, removing Tomanowos from its people and resting place.
All that was left was the crater.
In 1999, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde sued AMNH under a law that had been passed just nine years earlier: The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, also known as NAGPRA. Intended to address the spoils of hundreds of years of looting that sit in federally-funded museums and institutions, NAGPRA offered federally recognized tribes a legal opportunity to get their cultural wealth and the remains of their ancestors back.
I spoke with University of Michigan Law School Professor Kirsten Carlson, who has had a long career of working with and advocating for Indigenous groups in America as well as the Maori in New Zealand. She is especially involved in the Anishinaabek community in the Southeast Michigan area, as she is married into the tribe. Dr. Carlson is currently teaching a class entitled “Federal Indian Law” at the Law School, where her class regularly discusses statutes such as NAGPRA.
“The human remains part of (NAGPRA) comes out of a long-standing history of grave robbery in the United States — much of it sanctioned by federal and state laws and officials,” Carlson said. “When I went to Michigan 20 years ago, there were more dead Indians than there were alive Indians.”
According to ProPublica’s repatriation database, the University of Michigan has the 25th largest amount of unrepatriated indigenous remains in all of the United States of America. Fify-two percent of all remains ever held by the University have been repatriated since the passing of NAGPRA in 1990, but more than 700 indigenous ancestors are sitting in storage facilities. And that is to say nothing about the many remains held in the Philippine collections, miles and oceans away from their homeland.
Museums must have reasons for collecting these remains, or at least I have to think that they must. I know they do biological and anthropological research on bone fragments. Religious historians, in particular, have researched end-of-life rituals for decades, parsing through the way we deal with loss and the ceremonies we perform to ease our grief. And yet, hundreds of people are removed from their families, from their homes, from their intended resting places for science, only to sit on climate-controlled shelves.
“Until they are restored to the land,” Carlson said, “they have not really gone home.”
It is in this instance that I am reminded of Saidiya Hartman’s monumental essay “Venus in Two Acts”, where she not only coins the concept of critical fabulation and outlines how she deals with “silences in the archive,” but tells the story of two young girls, killed on a slave ship during the Middle Passage. I’ve been assigned this essay in three different history classes at the University, often preceding a trip to a campus repository.
“The archive is, in this case, a death sentence, a tomb, a display of the violated body, an inventory of property, … an asterisk in the grand narrative of history,” Hartman writes.
And it’s true. In the age of the internet, the archive has become a death sentence. Out of all of the 33,730 enrolled undergraduates at the University, only 117 are history majors. Only 117 students are required to take a class dissecting the concept of an archive and learning the intricacies of requesting access to archival holdings. While it’s not implausible to imagine that students with other majors are visiting campus repositories or researching historical items, it’s not probable. The number of students declaring a history major has been in steady decline since 2003, meaning that students are just not as interested in history anymore — students who are likely to go dig a box out of the Bentley or the Clements and devote an afternoon to perusing its contents are a quickly disappearing minority.
This, in turn, means that the stories of the people whose lives are holed up in the University of Michigan Museum of Anthropological Archaeology storage are not getting told.
I spoke with Public Health junior Alyssa Caldito, president of the Filipino American Students Association, about her experience interacting with the Philippine collections — both through her cultural club participation and through the ReConnect/ReCollect project.
“The University of Michigan has, I think, the largest Philippine collections in either the country or outside of the Philippines,” Caldito said. “Which is very surprising and very jarring for me to hear. I grew up in Michigan … 30 minutes away from the University … and I just never knew about them.”
The Field Museum in Chicago cites its Philippine collection as the largest in the Western Hemisphere, with more than 10,000 objects in its collection, but the University of Michigan has 25,000. Nowhere on campus is that advertised.
“There’s definitely that sense of anger when you think about how the collections got here,” Caldito said. “Most of the time, they were stolen. Most of the time, the people who were collecting were exploiting Indigenous Filipinos to give them their things.”
And yet, here they are: items from Caldito’s culture, not often acknowledged, in a world-class research institution at the University of Michigan. The museum provides her access to items that would have likely been destroyed during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines.
Caldito went on to talk about the problems the University faced while attempting to repatriate some of the remains and cultural patrimony — how the researchers would attempt to make contact with potential descendants and had cases in which they wouldn’t hear back. It is also common for researchers to not know who to reach out to. Who do we repatriate remains to when we have decimated their entire population through years of oppression and violence? Who do we give items back to when the people who owned them no longer exist?
AMNH has attempted to answer a similar question in the case of Tomanowos: How does an institution acknowledge its history and the very real pain that has come with the collection of items, yet continue to do its job as an educational facility intent on making global cultures more accessible? This is a question that must be considered by all institutions currently holding objects of extreme scientific and cultural value.
When the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde sued AMNH for possession of Tomanowos under NAGPRA, the two parties were able to come to a different conclusion; one that kept the meteorite accessible to the greater public but also acknowledged the very real connection that the tribe had with it. Per their agreement, AMNH has put up signs about the spiritual significance of the Willamette meteorite as well as its scientific importance. They have created internships where tribal youth are flown out to New York to interact with and learn about Tomanowos. They’ve closed down the museum for the tribe to host ceremonies and blessings. They have created a strong working relationship with the tribe and continue to uphold it.
The University of Michigan NAGPRA office said it best, in an email to The Daily: “Ultimately, NAGPRA is a process that relies on the people involved, guided by the requirements of the law, acting in a spirit of mutual respect and transparency of process.”
Over the summer, I loved watching young camp groups walk into AMNH, unsure of how they felt about science, and leave armed with facts and questions to bring home to their caregivers and loved ones. The accessibility of AMNH plays a huge role in science education in New York City, which has one of the most segregated public school systems in the United States. Despite issues with the museum’s possession of these artifacts, it feels wrong to deprive underprivileged children in underfunded schools access to other cultures and other viewpoints.
I think the key factor here is consent. The people whose physical remains are sitting on shelves in storage in South Campus did not give consent for their bodies to be dug up, removed from their families and then examined under a microscope. There are plenty of people who donate their bodies to science every year. Those bodies can and should be studied for scientific advancement, but bodies forcibly removed should not. I’ve heard whispers of concern that science will miss out on the diversity of samples available if remains taken without permission are returned, but institutions will simply have to learn the lesson that the rest of us learned in preschool: If you take without asking, others won’t willingly share with you.
There are even more people who bequeath items to institutions in death with the intent of having them displayed. There are many people who feel that their culture, when properly and thoughtfully represented in institutions, is uplifted by greater recognition. That visibility validates the importance of their experience by presenting it to a larger audience in order to better educate the general public on their practices. In only displaying items given to museums, not taken, not donated by looters, museums can create an even more welcoming atmosphere — one that truly invites all visitors to partake in the feast of knowledge that the institutions and their staffs spend years painstakingly creating.
Statement Correspondent Lucy Del Deo can be reached at email@example.com.