In both size and scope, the Peabody cares for one of the largest collections subject to NAGPRA, which, before the legislation was passed, included remains from more than 10,000 individuals, and includes 6,500 individuals today. In its development as a premier research and teaching institution, the Museum directly benefited from collecting practices that we recognize today ignore the wishes and values of families and communities. In January 2021 Peabody Director Jane Pickering made a specific and formal apology for the practices that led to the Peabody’s large collection of Native American human remains and funerary objects, and pledged to prioritize the urgent work of understanding and illuminating our history to begin to make amends.
The Peabody is committed to high standards of integrity and fair process in its efforts. Since 1990, and as of 1st July 2022, the museum has developed a systematic and comprehensive program to administer NAGPRA that includes communication with the 574 federally recognized Indian Tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations, as well as many state-recognized tribes and other native groups. The museum has published 176 Federal Register Notices to repatriate human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony. As of July 1 2022, these Federal Register Notices have resulted in the cultural affiliation and transfer of over 3,000 individuals, 8,000 funerary objects, and 100 objects of cultural patrimony and sacred objects. Under the expanded regulations issued by the Department of the Interior in 2010, the museum has received 6 formal requests for disposition under NAGPRA, resulting in the disposition of over 400 individuals. As per a new policy implemented in 2021 (see below), the museum will return associated funerary objects as part of dispositions; since the policy's implementation, 432 associated funerary objects have been transferred via disposition. These human remains and cultural items represent 35 states and have been transferred to 226 Native American tribes, Alaska tribal organizations and Native regional corporations, and Native Hawaiian organizations.
Policy on Associated Funerary Objects
In 2020, the Peabody Museum’s NAGPRA Advisory Committee prioritized consideration of associated funerary objects with culturally unidentifiable human remains and requested administrative steps to enable these and other transfers; and furthermore, acknowledged the need for respectful repair. The museum is now authorized by Harvard University to transfer associated funerary objects under NAGPRA, including those recommended by the Secretary of the Interior in accordance with NAGPRA’s regulatory addition for disposition of culturally unidentifiable human remains and recommendation that museums transfer control of associated funerary objects if Federal or State law does not preclude it. The museum will assess requests as described in the regulation.
The Peabody Museum will respectfully contact Tribes who have requested these burial belongings in the past, and were declined prior to this authorization. The museum apologizes for those refusals.
Stewards of the Sacred
Even before the passing of NAGPRA, the Peabody Museum has been committed to working with descendant and other communities to provide appropriate housing and care of sensitive collections. As a part of NAGPRA consultations, the Peabody works with tribes on traditional care, handling, and other requests pertaining to culturally sensitive collections. The museum currently carries out more than 100 such requests.
In 2004 the American Association of Museums Press published “Stewards of the Sacred.” It includes the article “Stewardship of Sensitive Collections: Policies, Procedures, and the Process of their Development at the Peabody Museum” by (then) associate curators, Patricia Capone and Diana Loren, which details the Peabody Museum's approach to the care and treatment of sensitive collections. In the same volume “Culturally Sensitive Collections: A Museum Perspective,” by Rubie Watson, Peabody director (1997 – 2003), addresses planning, consultation, and procedures for stewardship of culturally sensitive collections at the Peabody.