The Smithsonian museum has apologized for ‘unethical’ historic collections including brains harvested by a white supremacist former curator in the 1900s – as furious families demand the return of their relatives’ remains.
Ales Hrdlicka, the institution’s first curator of human anthropology, led the museum’s drive to collect 255 brains in the early 1900s as he attempted to present evidence of a now-debunked theory about anatomical differences between races.
According to the who unveiled the dark story behind the collection, the majority were removed upon death from non-white and indigenous people without the consent of the individuals or their families.
One of the brains belonged to Mary Sara, an indigenous Scandinavian woman of the Sami people, who died of tuberculosis in a Seattle sanitarium in 1933 at the age of 18.
Her doctor contacted the Smithsonian by telegram in May of that year to offer her brain for Hrdlicka’s collection, and it is still preserved within the walls of the institution 90 years on.
Ales Hrdlicka, the DC institution’s first curator of human anthropology, led the museum’s drive to collect 255 brains in the early 1900s as he attempted to present evidence of a now-debunked theory about anatomical differences between races
Martha Sara, the first cousin of Mary Sara, and her husband Fred Jack are photographed at home in Wasilla, Alaska, Saturday, May 27, 2023.
Mary Sara was an 18 year old Sami woman from Alaska, who died in Seattle in 1933 of tuberculosis
This year, the Smithsonian (pictured) announced the creation of a task force aimed at addressing what will happen to the human remains in conversation with relatives and apologized for previous practices
Using Smithsonian documents, the Post tracked down Sara’s relatives – who had no idea her brain had been taken and said they would demand its return.
Her cousin, retired nurse Martha Sara Jack, 77, described the practice as ‘a violation of anybody’s trust or humanity’.
‘It’s inhumane,’ Jack, who lives in Wasilla, Alaska, said.
‘It’s not science anymore. It’s like barbarism or ghoulish harvesting.’
‘It’s kind of like an open wound, her husband, Fred Jack, added.
‘We want to have peace and we’ll have no peace because we know this exists, until it’s corrected.’
The Smithsonian’s board approved giving Sara’s brain to the family, the Post said – though officials refused their request to pay for a burial and headstone.
The brains, mostly collected in the 1940s, have long been off-limit to public viewing, with officials only allowing descendants or members of related communities to see them, according to the Post.
This year, the Smithsonian announced the creation of a task force aimed at addressing what will happen to the human remains in conversation with relatives, and apologized for previous practices.
‘At the Smithsonian, we recognize certain collection practices of our past were unethical,’ said Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch III.
‘What was once standard in the museum field is no longer acceptable.
Ales Hrdlicka, left, of the Smithsonian Institute, and Robert Andrews Millikan of the California Institution of Technology of Pasadena, California, at the general meeting of the American Philosophical society in Philadelphia
Documents collected by Ales Hrdlicka are photographed at the Smithsonian Museum Support Center in Silver Hill, Maryland
‘We acknowledge and apologize for the pain our historical practices have caused people, their families and their communities.
‘I look forward to the conversations this initiative will generate in helping us perform our cutting-edge research in a manner that is ripe with scholarship and conforms to the highest ethical standard.’
The museum added that since 1989, it has ‘successfully repatriated over 5,000 individuals’ under the National Museum of the American Indian Act, and the new task force will ‘develop a policy that addresses all human remains’ held by the institution.
Including Hrdlicka’s collection, the Natural History Museum has at least 268 brains, per the Post, and only four have been repatriated.
This is largely because the Smithsonian requires relatives to issue a formal request for their return – but many are unaware that they were taken in the first place.
Czech-American anthropologist Hrdlicka became the first curator of human anthropology at the Smithsonian in 1903.
Around the same time, he was emerging as the chief proponent for the theory that man had not lived in the Americas for longer than 3,000 years – therefore contesting tens of thousands of years of indigenous history.
He was also seen as an authoritative scholar on race, leading the plight to prove that race determined physical characteristics and intelligence.
Hrdlicka was also a member of the American Eugenics Society, an organization which aimed to ‘improve’ the gene pool based on racist theories which would be widely condemned after the Nazis used them to justify the Holocaust.
The Smithsonian Museum Support Center (pictured) in Maryland which houses the brains collected by the institution
A framed photo of Mary Sara is seen at her first cousin’s home in Wasilla, Alaska
He often touted his white supremacist beliefs, including in a speech where he said black people were ‘the real problem before American people’, according to the Post.
‘There are differences of importance between the brains of the negro and European, to the general disadvantage of the former,’ he wrote in a 1926 letter to a University of Vermont professor.
‘Brains of individual negroes may come up to or near the standard of some individual whites; but such primitive brains as found in some negroes … would be hard to duplicate in normal whites.’
Hrdlicka described his group of human brains at the Smithsonian as the ‘racial brain collection’ – and it is unclear whether he took the brains illegally.