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

  1. emily_pfeil says:

    Like we talked about in class, we must not be too quick to assume that our ethnocentric ideologies are completely gone. As museum professionals we must do our best to combat our biases and I think one of the most important ways to do that is by involving the community including specific indigenous communities when exhibiting cultural material.

  2. lucega96 says:

    Great post, Julie! I really like the quote from Ian Tatersall. I think he makes a great point about putting the past actions of the AMNH in perspective. However, I don’t believe we as museum professionals should shy away from addressing the dark, controversial incidents in our history. One way museum professionals could face the past, is to create exhibits around such incidents. The AMNH could have an exhibit about Minik’s story and general commentary on the paternalistic mentality of museums at that time concerning other ethnic groups. The exhibit wouldn’t have to be apologist exactly, just stating the facts about what happened and why.

  3. geoffrey07 says:

    You and Emily are absolutely right, Julie. In fact, we have to remember that the museum itself is an institution constructed from the cultural need of Western nations to not only collect and study objects, but to array and display them in a meaningful way. We cannot always expect the concepts and ideals behind museums to translate to other cultures because other cultures may not entertain the same material need to collect and display objects. So in a way, there may always be a bit of a cultural gap between museums and indigenous populations, which is why it’s our job to ensure that we are in the open about our purposes and must be especially careful to communicate with these communities if we display artifacts which maintain significance for them.

  4. corwhe56 says:

    In terms of “putting things right” there are a few things museum professionals can do. Getting the community involved within the museum would be beneficial, but also diversifying who is working at the museum itself. If the museum has more diversity within its museum walls it is less likely to unknowingly (or knowingly) make such a horrendous mistake as was done to Minik and the Inuit people.

  5. scalje70 says:

    I completely agree with Dr. Betsinger’s opinions, in this post. Museums are supposed to focus on the public, focus on the people they are serving. If we are not respecting different cultures and viewing them with a sense of equality then we are not fulfilling our missions.

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