Give Me My Father’s Body: How Far Have We Actually Come?

Give Me My Father’s Body tells the heart-wrenching story of Minik, a young Inuit boy who was led from his home in Northern Greenland to the United States by the pseudo-academic Robert Peary in 1897. The book highlights the dark underside of the formative years of institutions like the American Museum of Natural History and Columbia University. Neither of these institutions has formally apologized for their unethical treatment of Inuit human remains.

Dr. Tracy Betsinger, a biological anthropologist at SUNY Oneonta who has worked closely with museums, believes that human remains should not be used to educate the public on the cultures of indigenous peoples. However, ethically procured and maintained human remains can be used to educate the public on our shared human biology. She adds that indigenous communities should always have the highest authority on where the human remains and artifacts belonging to their heritage should reside, and how they should be cared for.

In response to the controversies surrounding Give Me My Father’s Body, Ian Tattersall, a Curator Emeritus at the Museum of Natural History, said in 2000: “To judge what went on in that time by the values of today is not very productive. All we could do was take whatever action we could do to put things right.” Is Tattersall correct in this assertion?

Would it be responsible for museum professional to accept that the pervading ethnocentric ideologies of turn-of-the-century America are dead and gone?

How should museums go about “putting things right” when it comes to historical accounts of the mistreatment of indigenous human remains?

Source: “An Eskimo Boy and Injustice in Old New York: A Campaigning Writer Indicts An Explorer and a Museum” by Dinitia Smith. The New York Times. March 15, 2000.

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Ethical Concerns in Museums

The AAM Code of Ethics for Museums is a resource that guides and pushes professionals to uphold a higher standard in their work. As is stated by the code, it is constantly changing and evolving. The code was adopted only in 1991. Before its inception as the standard for measurement, what did museums use as a guide before in the regards to ethics?

In reading Give Me Back My Father’s Body, it is clear that ethics were not a top priority for museum leaders at the turn of the 20th century as they are today. NAGPRA along with the AAM Code of Ethics has ensured that remains are not treated as merely scientific curiosities as were the remains of Minik’s father’s body. In the evolution of ethics in the museum field

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The Ethics of Interpretation

Museum ethics codes are written outside of the realm of legality to protect the integrity of the museum while respecting its collection. Give Me My Father’s Body by Kenn Harper brings attention to the battle led by an Inuk man to reclaim his father’s body which had been put on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York without the consent of the family. This act of desecration of the dead crossed the line between public education through ethnic interpretation and disrespecting the individuals of the ethnicity that was being interpreted.

I spoke with Colette Lemmon, Curator of the Iroquois Indian Museum, about her views of exhibiting cultural objects while attaining codes of ethics. Ms. Lemmon has experience with acting as a curator and consultant for numerous Native American art collections at various institutions and The National Vietnam War Museum.  She believes that it is important never to use the first person when speaking about another culture. It is appropriate to exhibit cultural objects through an anthropological point of view, but care should be taken to remain respectful toward the group of individuals whose story that object tells.

Exhibits should not only be about what you can take from a culture, whether you are handling the stories of Native people or war veterans, but what you can give back to that culture. What steps can be taken in order to exhibit cultural objects for public education while maintaining respect for the members of the culture?

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The Evolving Role of Ethics in Museums

The application of ethics in museums is something that has become more prominent in recent years. The AAM code of ethics was not implemented until 1991, a mere 24 years ago. Through the understanding and enlightenment of past museum events, the implementation of these standards was very much needed.

The book “Give Me My Father’s Body” told a story of an Eskimo community; this community was manipulated and separated for the sake of “science”. While learning and expanding our horizons is always important, and we should make an effort to understand other cultures, this was gone about in a very detached way. The Eskimos that were brought to New York City were treated as a display, not given proper quarters to stay, and were basically ignored when they needed medical attention. Their culture was viewed as inferior not only by American Museum of Natural History visitors, but also by the anthropologists that requested their presence. Empathy was lacking, and a true bond between the cultures was not able to be formed because of this.

I found the story of Minik to be emotional, and hurtful as a fellow human being. His father was all he felt he had left in the world, and he lost him in entirety because of neglect and an apparent refusal to treat Minik or his father’s body with the respect that is due to any human being. While it was disappointing to learn that practices such as this occurred in the past, it is refreshing to know that the need for a code of ethics was recognized and put into place. In speaking with Erin Richardson, a CGO alumna, she expressed how important ethics are in the field and how we always have further to go. She stated, “Museums are about people, and if we don’t treat people well then why are we here?”

My question is, are we addressing the issues of the past that suffered from not having this code of ethics? And is this code being updated often enough?

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Balancing Ethics in a Changing World

In Give Me My Father’s Body, Kenn Harper tells the story of Minik, a young Inuk, who struggles to find his place in the world after he is removed from his home in Greenland. Harper details the struggles Minik faced while trying to reclaim his father’s body from the Museum of Natural History and the overall unethical behavior of the museum’s professionals. While the ethical issues discussed in the book are numerous, are they the same ethical issues museums are still dealing with today?

I talked with Brian Alexander, professor of museum administration at the Cooperstown Graduate Program, to discuss how advancements in technology and the demand to diversify will change the way in which museums deal with ethical questions. He talked about the importance of finding balance and accepting that as the world changes, so too will ethical issues. While code of ethics exist to help guide museums, it has been the experience of Professor Alexander that museum professionals must decide for themselves what constitutes acting in an ethical way. He stressed that regardless of the decisions made, museum professionals must not sacrifice the integrity of the institution.

Fortunately, laws governing the ethical treatment and repatriation of human remains, have helped decrease the issues found in Give Me My Father’s Body, but due to advancements in technology and a demand to see more diversity in museums, new ethical issues are bound to arise. What are some ethical concerns that may arise in this new diverse and digital age?

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