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New York Museum Benefited from African Genocide

Photo: Statue of Theodore Roosevelt outside AMNH, by Mike Steele, via Flickr (cropped).

As I discussed in a recent article and video, Germany committed genocide against the Herero and Nama peoples in southwest Africa in the early 1900s. German authorities also conducted medical experiments on their victims in the name of racial “science.” The extermination efforts and medical experiments were a product of Western imperialism and fueled in part by a virulent strain of Darwinian ideology.

A Sorry Story

It turns out that one of America’s most prominent museums benefited from the atrocities. The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City purchased a collection of skulls that included pieces gathered from German concentration camps in southwest Africa. The sorry story is told in this 2018 article in The New Yorker

In 1906, Felix von Luschan, an Austrian-born anthropologist, sent letters to [German] colonial officers asking that they gather bones and ship them to him in Berlin, for research. In a letter discovered by the historian Andrew Zimmerman, one of the officers replied, “In the concentration camps taking and preserving the skulls of Herero prisoners of war will be more readily possible than in the country, where there is always a danger of offending the ritual feelings of the natives.” In response to one anthropologist’s request, the German overseers of a concentration camp gave Herero women shards of glass and told them to scrape the flesh from the corpses of Herero men. Luschan eventually sold his entire personal collection, including the skulls of thousands of people from across the world, to the American Museum of Natural History. The purchase doubled the museum’s physical anthropology holdings and helped establish the AMNH as a leader in the field.

As of 2018, the skulls were still housed in the AMNH’s collections, although the museum allowed a delegation of a dozen Hereros to view the remains.

No Response

Are they still housed there? Earlier this week, I contacted the museum’s press office in an effort to find out, and to ask if the Museum was considering sending them back to modern Namibia for burial. The AMNH failed to respond.

It’s not the first time the museum has avoided addressing its uncomfortable history. While preparing my documentary Human Zoos, I encountered a similar wall of silence.  My documentary deals in part with the museum’s history of promoting eugenics. But AMNH officials declined a request to be interviewed on-screen for the documentary. Their stated reason? I wasn’t able to purchase $2 million in insurance. Yet the museum also turned down repeated requests to answer questions about its history in writing for the documentary.

It remains to be seen whether the AMNH will continue to get a pass in 2020 about its avoidance of its problematic past.

John G. West

Senior Fellow, Managing Director, and Vice President of Discovery Institute
Dr. John G. West is Vice President of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and Managing Director of the Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Formerly the Chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at Seattle Pacific University, West is an award-winning author and documentary filmmaker who has written or edited 12 books, including Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, and Walt Disney and Live Action: The Disney Studio’s Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s. His documentary films include Fire-Maker, Revolutionary, The War on Humans, and (most recently) Human Zoos. West holds a PhD in Government from Claremont Graduate University, and he has been interviewed by media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, Reuters, Time magazine, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post.



American Museum of Natural HistoryAMNHAndrew ZimmermananthropologyDarwinian ideologyFelix von LuschangenocideGermanyHerero peopleHuman Zoosmedical experimentsNama peopleNamibiaThe New Yorker