Key findings from The Post’s Smithsonian brain collection investigation

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The Washington Post spent a year examining the Smithsonian’s collection of human remains, including 255 brains. Reporters reviewed thousands of documents, including studies, field notes and personal correspondence, and interviewed experts, Smithsonian officials, and descendants and members of communities whose remains were targeted for collection. The Post also obtained from the National Museum of Natural History an inventory of all human remains in its possession, which allowed reporters to publish the most extensive analysis of the collection to date.

Read the first story now: Revealing the Smithsonian’s ‘racial brain collection’

This series will continue through Aug. 17. Here are the key findings so far:

The Smithsonian’s collection of human remains is one of the largest in the world. It includes mummies, skulls and teeth, representing an unknown number of people. It also has a collection of brains, which were taken mostly from Black, Indigenous people and other people of color.

The remains are the unreconciled legacy of a grisly practice in which body parts were scavenged from graveyards, battlefields, hospitals and morgues in more than 80 countries.

Most of the remains appear to have been gathered without consent from the individuals or their families, by researchers preying on people who were hospitalized, poor, or lacked immediate relatives to identify or bury them. In other cases, collectors, anthropologists and scientists dug up burial grounds and looted graves.

In 1903, Ales Hrdlicka (hurd-lich-kuh), an anthropologist and curator for the U.S. National Museum, the predecessor to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, started what he referred to as the “racial brain collection.” Hrdlicka believed that White people were superior and collected body parts to further now-debunked theories about anatomical differences between races.

He was widely viewed as an expert on race, evolution and human variation and believed that collecting body parts would help with the discovery of the origins of people in the Americas. He was featured in newspapers frequently, and his beliefs influenced U.S. government policies on race.

A black and white portrait of an older man with a white mustache and combed back white hair stands on a ship deck. He wears a suit and his mouth is closed and eyes squinting as if in concentration. Another man in a suit and hat walks behind him and the ocean is in the background.
Anthropologist Ales Hrdlicka aboard a U.S. Coast Guard ship on his way to Alaska for a research expedition in 1938. (AP)

Hrdlicka started collecting in the Smithsonian’s backyard, seeking bodies from hospitals, morgues and medical schools. He eventually acquired 74 brains in the Washington area, the largest regional group within the brains still held by the Smithsonian, according to records reviewed by The Post. Of those, 50 had race recorded, and 35 of those brains were taken from Black people.

Black people also stood out nationwide: Of the 77 brains taken within the United States that have race recorded, Black people represent the largest racial group, with 57 brains taken.

Over the 40 years in which Hrdlicka led the physical anthropology division at the Smithsonian, he recruited and built an international network of anthropologists, scientists, doctors and professors to collect body parts on his behalf, records show. Hrdlicka and the Smithsonian sometimes purchased the remains, or reimbursed donors for the cost of shipping body parts to Washington, records show.

Of the more than 30,700 human remains that the museum still holds in storage, more than 19,000 — or about 62 percent — were collected while Hrdlicka was head of the physical anthropology division, according to a Post analysis.

A bar chart, with an x-axis of years, from 1840 to 2020, and a y-axis of body parts collected, from 0 to 6,000. The chart resembles a bell curve, with the most body parts collected between 1900 and 1940. A note below the chart reads: “Hrdlicka was a curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s U.S. National Museum from 1903 to 1943.”

The Natural History Museum has lagged in its efforts to return the vast majority of the remains in its possession to descendants or cultural heirs, The Post’s investigation found. Of the brains in its collection, the museum has repatriated only four.

The Smithsonian requires people with a personal interest or legal right to the remains to issue a formal request, a virtual impossibility for many would-be claimants since they are unaware of the collection’s existence.

The Natural History Museum said that in the last three decades it has returned 4,068 sets of human remains and offered to repatriate 2,254 more. Those remains belong to more than 6,900 people, because some sets include the remains of more than one person.

A black and white photo of an open gravesite with dozens of boxes. People stand next to the ground and are gathering for a ceremony.
The bones of several hundred Alaska Natives are reburied in Larsen Bay in 1991 after local residents sought for years to have their remains returned by the Smithsonian Institution. (Marion Stirrup/AP)

As The Post investigated, the Natural History Museum hired two researchers to look into the stewardship and ethical return of body parts and other objects. It also restricted access to human remains and shared with The Post plans to relocate the brains.

In April, Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III issued a statement apologizing for how the institution collected many of its bodies and body parts in the past. He also announced the creation of a task force to determine what to do with the remains. In an interview, Bunch said it was his goal to return as many body parts as possible.

Do you have a tip or suggestion for a story about the Smithsonian’s collection of human remains? Tell our team at thecollection@washpost.com.

About The Collection

Reporting by Nicole Dungca, Claire Healy and Andrew Ba Tran.

Regine Cabato, Alice Crites, Magda Jean-Louis, Monika Mathur, Nate Jones and Hannah Good of The Washington Post contributed to the reporting.

Alexander Fernandez, Nami Hijikata, Soléne Guarinos and Lalini Pedris of the American University-Washington Post practicum program contributed to the reporting.

Editing by David Fallis, Sarah Childress, Aaron Wiener, Jenna Pirog and Hannah Good.

Project editing by KC Schaper with additional support from Tara McCarty.

Copy editing by Anjelica Tan, Kim Chapman and Jordan Melendrez.

Filipino translation and editing for “Searching for Maura” by KC Schaper, Regine Cabato, Hannah Dormido and Christian Jil Benitez.

Design by Tara McCarty and Audrey Valbuena. Digital development by Audrey Valbuena. Print design by Tara McCarty. Additional design by Laura Padilla Castellanos. Design editing by Christian Font and Christine Ashack.

Photos by Salwan Georges, Whitney Curtis, Jovelle Tamayo and Josh Reynolds. Photo editing by Robert Miller and Troy Witcher.

Graphics by Artur Galocha and Adrian Blanco Ramos. Graphics editing by Manuel Canales.

Illustrations for “Searching for Maura” by Ren Galeno.

Production for “Brain Desirable Part 1” and “Brain Desirable Part 2” for “Post Reports” by Reena Flores, with additional assistance from Lucas Trevor. Sound mixing by Sam Bair. Editing by Monica Campbell and David Fallis, with additional editing by Sarah Childress, Lucy Perkins and KC Schaper.

Videos in “Revealing the Smithsonian’s ‘racial brain collection’” by Dmitry Surnin and Jovelle Tamayo. Video producing by Jayne Orenstein. Video editing by Joy Sharon Yi.

Video editing and sound design for “Searching for Maura” and “Paghahanap kay Maura” by Lindsey Sitz. Animation by Sarah Hashemi. Narration by Claire Healy, Nicole Dungca, Hannah Dormido and Isabelle Jordan Lavandero. Additional narration by Angel Mendoza, David Fallis, Arjun Singh and Anne Branigin. Additional graphics by Artur Galocha. Additional photo and design support by Robert Miller, Troy Witcher and Audrey Valbuena.

Video in “How The Post reported on the Smithsonian’s human remains” by Joy Sharon Yi. Senior produced by Jayne Orenstein. Executive produced by Tom LeGro. Additional editing by Sarah Childress, David Fallis and KC Schaper. Animation by Sarah Hashemi. Illustrations by Ren Galeno. Additional video by Lindsey Sitz and Sarah Hashemi. Photo editing by Robert Miller and Troy Witcher.

Print coordination by Ed Thiede.

Additional editing, production and support by Jeff Leen, Jenna Lief, Matt Callahan, Junne Alcantara, Phoebe Connelly, Brian Gross, Greg Manifold, Grace Moon, Sofia Diogo Mateus, Matt Clough, Isabelle Jordan Lavandero, Lauren Saks, Libby Casey, Justin Scuiletti, Meredith Craig, Sarah Murray, Brandon Carter, Sarah Pineda, Chloe Meister, Angel Mendoza, Kyley Shultz, Travis Lyles, Natali Freeling and Aadit Tambe.

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