Museum curators worldwide are deliberating over what to do with controversial artifacts and sensitive materials, such as human remains, that under today’s lenses would be deemed unethical to display. Peter Lape, an anthropology professor at the University of Washington and archaeology curator at its Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, said this is an ongoing conversation among museum workers in Seattle, especially within the walls of natural history museums.
The Burke currently has human remains in its inventory, and Lape estimates that over the years, the Burke has housed roughly 500 human bodies. The vast majority of those bodies were of Native American Ancestry. “We’ve repatriated most of those,” Lape said.
Lape is one of the 12 curators working at the Burke. The main job of a museum curator is leading staff on how to manage the acquisition, care and display of collections. Curators also do research using those items. Lape’s job specifically focuses on researching and handling collections related to human history and their remains.
The Burke is the oldest museum in Washington and can trace its origins back to a high school naturalists club starting in 1879. In 1899, it was established as the Washington State Museum. But with that length of time comes a legacy of collecting items spanning different eras — and varying legal regulations of what museums are allowed to collect.
“We’ve kind of inherited this legacy of collecting from different time periods, and some of those belongings in our contemporary ethics should not be at the Burke,” Lape said. “Any museum that’s been around for a while has this legacy of past collections that we would not do today.”
Lape said a lot of his current workload is figuring out how to rectify those past mistakes or past behaviors of collections. “I spend probably half of my time not bringing new things into the museum, but sending things out to communities where they belong.”
Today, there are mandates and standards that natural history museums must follow when collecting sensitive materials.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act passed by Congress in 1990 is one such attempt to safeguard ancestral communities. The act provides the legal framework for museums to return Native American bodies, grave goods and other sacred objects back to their tribal lands. Lape said his predecessors at the Burke helped support the passing of NAGPRA.
“Sometimes we don't have good records of where they came from. We just know that they’re from the United States,” Lape explained.
Lape said that when remains or bone fragments are given back to local tribes, they rebury them with ceremony.
The Burke has never had African or African American bodies in the museum, according to Lape, and he attributes that to the history of the Northwest, where there wasn’t a lot of excavating of Black cemeteries on the scale that was happening in the Northeastern and Southern states.
Museums’ uncertain future
Lape questions whether museums, at least the sections that handle human archaeology, should be societal institutions. Lape believes there is a cultural significance to taking care of old things and using them to teach about human history, but he struggles with how to ethically do so.
“I wonder if museums actually have a place going forward. I’m not sure, to tell you the truth. I’ve spent my working career in them. … I liked them when I was a kid, but maybe fundamentally we need to move to something else.”
One possibility is the Burke moving toward showcasing various species of plants, animals and fossils and away from displaying human archaeology. Another option is for museums to make more diverse hires, which Lape said is something the Burke is actively doing, and have more Native curators. This would bring in more expertise and perspectives across the board. A more drastic approach would be that the Burke repatriates everything and closes its doors.
Lape hopes the latter won’t happen and a balance can be reached, where museums feel like a welcoming place for everyone with a sense of joint ownership over what is being displayed.
Samira George covers real people living real lives in the Puget Sound. Follow her on Twitter @samirakgeorge.
Read more of the July 14-20, 2021 issue.