New York museum refuses access to ‘stolen’ Namibian bone collection

The American Museum of Natural History has turned down a request by descendants of victims of the 1904–08 German colonial genocide to inspect the remains of persons said to be of Namibian origin that form part of a special bone collection held at the museum in New York.

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Human remains on display in Germany before their recent return to Namibia.

Dr Laurel Kendall, the chair of the Anthropology Division at the American Museum of Natural History, wrote this week to the Namibia Genocide Association (NGA) to confirm that they do in fact hold several specimens of Namibian origin.

The AMNH produced a chart that shows the museum has the remains of eight individuals that originate in southern Africa, most likely Namibia. The eight individuals were variously identified to be of Damara, Herero, San and Khoikhoi origin and include the skeletal remains of three women.

The issue gained prominence in 2017 when it came to light that a German historian, Dr. Holger Stoecker, had discovered the remains in question at AMNH several years previously. The New Yorker subsequently reported that over 100 years ago “German colonists stole these bones from what they called German Southwest Africa.”

In 1906, Felix von Luschan, an anthropologist at the Royal Museum for Ethnology in Berlin from 1885–1910, wrote to colonial officers to gather and ship bones to him, for research. Luschan later sold his collection to AMNH, including the remains of thousands of people from across the world.

According to The New Yorker, “The purchase doubled the museum’s physical anthropology holdings and helped establish the AMNH as a leader in the field.”

“The issues surrounding the holding of such remains at the museum have become increasingly prominent within the community of Namibians living in the United States and beyond. The museum is working hard to address those issues,” Kendall wrote to Laidlaw Peringanda of the NGA, who had requested information about and access to the collection.

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Many descendants of the victims of the 1904–08 German genocide feel that their ancestors’ remains must return to Namibia. Photo: National Archives

Dr Kendall further confirmed that the museum has been in contact with the U.S. State Department and the Namibian Embassy in the United States “regarding future actions” over the collection.

Namibian government officials have requested that a technical team from the Ministry of Education, Arts, and Culture be dispatched to New York to examine the individuals and associated documentation. AMNH is communicating with the ministry regarding the proposed visit, she wrote.

“These remains have also been implicated in a pending lawsuit brought in U.S. federal court here in New York by Herero and Nama representatives against the Federal Republic of Germany regarding the activities of German colonial authorities from 1885 to 1909 in what is now Namibia,” Kendall added.

AMNH had “received and honored multiple requests over the last year for information regarding these remains, including requests to view them, but would not allow further viewings of the collection in light of the ongoing lawsuit against Germany, and AMNH’s engagement with the Namibian government.”

Further, “the museum has… received requests in connection with this lawsuit to preserve the remains and related documentation for the time being. As we pursue a path of engagement with the Namibian government and as the lawsuit brought by Herero and Nama representatives progresses, the museum will not be scheduling any further visits to view the remains for the time being.

“We hope that our dealings with the Namibian government will advance this effort and we look forward to a satisfactory resolution of this matter.”

The Ovaherero, Mbanderu and Nama Genocide Institute released a statement in September 2017, saying two of the individuals had been identified as OvaHerero, two as Hai//om San, one as Nama and one as Damara, but the “ethnic and cultural identities of the other two remain unknown and require further research.

”The discovery of the Namibian human remains… in New York City is a vivid reminder of the ongoing legacy of racism and injustice. Germany must assume responsibility for the 1904–1908 OvaHerero and Nama genocides. Museums… that have been recipients of Namibian human remains and artifacts have a critical role to play in bringing closure to this painful chapter in our history.”

US District Judge Laura Taylor Swain heard arguments in July 2018 from lawyers of the German government and affected natives from Namibia but deferred her decision whether to hear the lawsuit filed in New York over colonial genocide in Africa to an as yet unspecified date.

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