US museum to return Filipino remains collected for research without consent

BenarNews staff
Washington and Manila
US museum to return Filipino remains collected for research without consent Nigrito natives demonstrate their rice planting techniques in the Philippines Village at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri.
[T.W. Ingersoll]

Washington’s Smithsonian Institution said Tuesday it would return to Manila the remains of Filipinos it acquired without consent from 1904-1941 for physical anthropology research, including to support racist beliefs about white people’s superiority. 

Among the remains of 64 individuals from the Philippines are the brains of three or four Filipinos who died after these people were brought to be displayed at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, when the Southeast Asian archipelago was a U.S. colony. 

After their deaths, their brains were collected to support the belief at the time that white people had larger brains.

“Yes, we plan to repatriate human remains to the Philippines,” Smithsonian Institution Chief Spokesperson Linda St. Thomas said in an email to BenarNews.

“The [Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History] staff has had discussions with the Philippine embassy in [Washington] D.C. and met with the Philippine national museum staff to determine the path forward for repatriating the 64 individuals,” she added.

The Smithsonian did not say when the repatriation of the Filipino remains would be completed.

Bagobos women demonstrate their domestic art in the Philippine Village at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. [T.W. Ingersoll]

The mostly indigenous Filipinos were brought to the United States for the St. Louis World Fair and died during the exposition there or, having chosen to remain in the U.S., in the years after, the state-run National Museum of the Philippines said in a statement Tuesday.

“[T]here is no evidence of consent being given for the collection and scientific use of the remains,” it said about the research carried out on the origin, evolution and diversity of humankind.

The Smithsonian affirmed that the human remains were acquired without consent “and in ways that are not consistent with modern standards.” 

The U.S. institution, whose network of museums are an iconic Washington destination for tourists from the world over, said the remains of the Filipinos and people from other nations were acquired from many sources such as archaeological excavations, transfers from government agencies, and donations from museums, universities, hospitals, and individuals.

The Smithsonian’s natural history museum is voluntarily repatriating the remains of indigenous people to their homelands worldwide, it said.

“In adherence with today’s standards of ethical museum practice, the [national museum] accepts and supports this effort of the Smithsonian [natural history museum] to do the right thing and facilitate the return of Filipino remains home as a way of rectifying this unfortunate situation,” the Philippine museum said.

An Igorot family is seen at the Philippines exhibit at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. [William Herman Rau]

A report in the Washington Post newspaper this week said that the collection of human remains consisted mostly of Black or indigenous people and other people of color. 

The newspaper report cited records that showed the Smithsonian still holds the brains collected from people of 10 countries, including Germany, the Philippines, the Czech Republic and South Africa. 

The Smithsonian said these remains were collected by Aleš Hrdlička, a curator and head of the then newly created Division of Physical Anthropology at the natural history museum, from 1904 until 1941. 

“The brains in particular were collected to support Hrdlička’s early 20th century racist beliefs that brains of white people were larger,” the institution said.

“Although many of his research and collecting practices reflect those of his time period, many of the actions taken by Aleš Hrdlička are today regarded as unethical; they violate the present norms of biological anthropology at the Smithsonian and in the broader museum field.”

According to the Washington Post report, Hrdliča, who was born in what is now the Czech Republic, was considered a top authority in the U.S. on race and sought by members of the government to prove that people’s race determined their intelligence.

The Post report said that Hrdliča once said Black people were “the real problem before the American people.”

In April, the Smithsonian formed a task force to develop a policy to address the future of human remains held within its museums’ collections. 

The Smithsonian said it had placed temporary restrictions on research on all human remains in its museums and the acquisition of any additional remains while that policy was being developed.


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