Reckoning with the Past, Influencing the Future

Q & A with the Warren Anatomical Museum curator

In 1847, John Collins Warren donated his personal teaching and research collection to Harvard Medical School (HMS). That collection became the Warren Anatomical Museum. The museum is one of the last surviving anatomy and pathology museum collections in the United States.

Since its founding, the museum has continued to grow and collect the artifacts and history of the Harvard health sciences community. Its mission is to inform contemporary medicine, the Harvard community, and the public. No longer a brick-and-mortar museum, the collection lives on as a teaching and research resource.

When the museum became part of the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine’s Center for the History of Medicine in 2000, museum curators and archivists began strategically cataloging the collection, with a particular focus on human remains. In the 2010s, they inventoried the museum’s osteological (bone) and wet-tissue holdings, which make up its primary human remains collections. Each case explored has illuminated the museum’s past and, therefore, its present and future.

This foundational work allowed the museum to respond to then Harvard President Drew Faust’s initial 2016 project investigating Harvard’s historical connection to slavery. The museum began a case-by-case examination of every record of individuals of African descent in the museum. This work was elevated again with Harvard President Lawrence Bacow’s announcement in 2019 of the Presidential Initiative on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery and in 2021 with the establishment of the Steering Committee on Human Remains in Harvard Museum Collections.

Chaired by Radcliffe Institute Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin, the Presidential Initiative on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery is an effort to understand and address the enduring legacy of slavery within the University community. The committee released its final report and recommendations on April 26, 2022.

The Steering Committee on Human Remains in Harvard Museum Collections is chaired by Evelynn Hammonds, the Barbara Gutmann Rosenkrantz Professor of the History of Science and professor of African and African American studies at Harvard, and focuses primarily on the remains held by the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and the Warren Anatomical Museum. The steering committee’s charge is to develop policy on the collection, display, and stewardship of human remains and propose principles and practices to address research, memorialization, repatriation, burial or reburial, and other considerations.

Warren Anatomical Museum Curator Dominic Hall discusses the museum, its mission, its collection, its historical connections to the U.S. legacy of slavery and scientific racism, and its continued commitment to understand and reckon with the past in hopes of influencing the future.

The Warren Anatomical Museum is one of the oldest anatomical museums in the U.S. What sets it apart from other such museums housed at medical schools?

Hall: At the most basic level, the fact that the museum has survived into the current era with an intact program that allows researchers and the public to explore, scrutinize, and learn from its legacy and collections sets the museum apart from its historical peers. Many American medical schools had anatomy and pathology museums and nearly all of these collections have disappeared or been forgotten. The Warren is the largest such collection still associated with a medical school in the country.

Moreover, the museum’s sense of place makes it unique. Since the beginning of the 19th century, the Warren has been the Harvard health community’s biorepository and artifact museum and has strived to preserve the deep and influential knowledge inherent within these collections for continuing education and research. Further, like many legacy anatomy and pathology museums, the Warren’s collection is highly regionalized and conveys the health history of Boston and its surroundings. Finally, and crucially, it preserves and depicts the history of medical education itself at HMS for over two centuries, a history that is further contextualized by virtue of its positioning in an academic center that holds the School’s archives.

Institutions across the U.S. continue to reckon with the nation’s history of enslavement, and museums are no exception. Could you briefly describe the efforts of the museum on this front?

Hall: Some of the work around this reckoning has been pursued by straightforward, standard museum practice. Since the Center for the History of Medicine took curatorial responsibility for the Warren, we have strategically cataloged the collection, the remains of individuals in particular. In the 2010s, we inventoried the museum’s osteological and wet-tissue holdings, which are its primary human remains collections. With each case explored, we have become better informed about the Warren’s past and, therefore, its present.

We conducted and are continuing to refine a case-by-case examination of every record of an individual of African descent in the museum. Each of these cases tells a story, and we’re looking at each and every individual for links to enslavement. This investigation’s scope includes human remains currently within the museum, artifacts like plaster casts, and images. We’ve also examined collections that haven’t survived into modernity. We want to understand the museum’s past as well as its present, so we can fully evaluate its connection to slavery and scientific racism in America.

What can you tell us about the museum’s historical connections to the U.S. legacy of slavery and to scientific racism?

Hall: The museum collected racially in the 19th century. While collecting and classifying alleged racial differences was a minor part of the museum’s mission in the 19th century, these collections certainly could have—and most likely did—influence the prevailing scientific racism deployed to rationalize enslavement and the subjugation of individuals who were not descendants of white Americans and Europeans. For example, the Warren maintained a racialized skull collection. Early curators measured and reported on the cranial volume of each of these skulls. At the time, this was considered objective science, supporting the notion of an intellectual continuum that reinforced the preexisting and pervasive racism of the 19th century.

Are there any artifacts in the museum’s current holdings with links to enslavement?

Hall: While we haven’t connected any existing remains of individuals to enslavement, there are artifacts and images in the collection linked to its legacy. The museum has a phrenological cast of Eustache Belin, who was born into slavery in Haiti and forced to labor in a dangerous sugar cane mill. During the Haitian Revolution of 1791, Belin was reported to have committed multiple acts of heroism, saving people’s lives, including that of his enslaver. His cast and story leave a complex legacy as it was utilized by abolitionists and pro-slavery advocates alike.

The museum also has photographs of a wax model of a girl known as Magdeleine of Martinique. Magdeleine was born to enslaved parents on the island of St. Lucia and was exhibited in a public show on Martinique because of her genetic pigmentation disorder. There may be other stories to tell as well. The work is ongoing, and we never stop looking for new information about the collections in our care.

How has the Warren Anatomical Museum been involved in the Presidential Initiative on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery and the University-wide Steering Committee on Human Remains in Harvard Museum Collections?

Hall: The Warren Anatomical Museum has been a key area of investigation for the medical education and experimentation subcommittee of the greater Presidential Initiative on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery. Anatomical science in general has deep ties to scientific racism. As a still-extant part of Harvard’s anatomical legacy, the museum can provide a tangible lens into historical connections that the University, specifically its medical school, had with enslavement. The Center also considers it paramount that the museum collections are interrogated coequally with the archival records affiliated with the Warren.

The Center and the Warren are also contributing directly to the Steering Committee on Human Remains in Harvard Museum Collections—both the Center’s director, Scott Podolsky, and myself are members of the committee. Within this vital investigation, the Warren is active on multiple fronts. It’s a historical resource for inquiry, it’s a recipient of any new policies regarding human remains collections that the committee might recommend, and it stewards a collection of the remains of individuals that must be reconciled with the University’s larger commitment to understanding its connection to enslavement and colonialism.

Historically, approximately one percent of collections in the Warren were associated with individuals of African descent, and the remains of some of these individuals still exist within the museum. While we haven’t connected any of these surviving remains to enslavement directly, some of the individuals from which the remains are derived may have been old enough at the time of their death to be born into enslavement, particularly if their lives began outside of Massachusetts. Therefore, we must continue to scrutinize the often-opaque archival record and be open to new sources of information in order to get the best sense of who these individuals were before their remains entered into the museum.

As the Warren explores its past connection to race science, slavery, and colonialism, it of course likewise remains incumbent upon the museum to continue its hard work toward compliance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in concert with other museums at Harvard and the larger University. The Warren has repatriated the remains of several Native American individuals to Tribal Nations and will continue to actively implement returns under NAGPRA legislation and the ethical and moral imperative it represents.

How do these efforts intersect with the museum’s educational mission?

Hall: They are fundamental to the educational mission. The museum is part of the Center for the History of Medicine, whose mission is to enable the history of medicine and public health to inform health care, the health sciences, and the societies in which they are embedded. We know that historical racism still manifests itself within modern health care, and by understanding the past, we can hope to influence the future.

Has the museum’s mission changed over the years? If so, in what ways?

Hall: It both has and hasn’t changed. Fundamentally, the museum’s mission was to use anatomical and pathological collections to educate. That primary function still continues, but now mostly through historical and scientific research rather than educational exhibition. Originally, the entire collection was exhibited in HMS’ main administration building. Now, less than one percent is on exhibit at any one time.

In the latter half of the 20th century, the Warren’s historical research program began to grow, and the museum responded to this change by collecting more historical medical artifacts. This mission shift was further augmented when the museum was transferred into the Center for the History of Medicine, and the mission continues to evolve. New sequencing techniques have returned the scientific lens to the museum’s anatomical and pathological collections, and the gallery is being used to explore changing bioethics in a way it wasn’t in the past.

Where is the museum located and are there physical and/or virtual exhibits?

Hall: The museum’s administrative and physical location echoes its mission shift. The HMS anatomy department closed in the late 1990s, and the museum collection was transferred into the Center for the History of Medicine in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, off Huntington Avenue on the HMS campus in Boston. In the past, the museum has maintained a small public gallery on the 5th floor of the Countway. We’re actually redesigning that gallery right now. Prior to the pandemic, it was completely deinstalled due to renovations within the building, and COVID kept us from reinstalling the museum’s public presence until this spring and summer. This deinstallation is enabling us to reimagine the gallery space, and I’m looking forward to the impact that the Presidential Initiative on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery and the University-wide Steering Committee on Human Remains in Harvard Museum Collections will have on the gallery’s reconstruction. We’re hoping to invite the public back by fall 2022.

How is the Warren Anatomical Museum connected to the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology?

Hall: Both are part of Harvard, and there are deep historical and professional connections between the two museums. The Peabody’s first curator, Jeffries Wyman, donated collections to the Warren, and the museums have transferred collections to one another in the past. Currently, the Warren relies on the Peabody for its efforts to comply with NAGPRA. The two collections also collaborate regularly on everything from database adoption and maintenance to researcher support.

Does the museum continue to collect anatomical specimens today?

Hall: With changes in medical education, the advent of the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, and research shifts from macroanatomy to microanatomy, the museum generally stopped collecting human remains after World War II; but in rare and carefully considered circumstances, the need still arises. The most common occurrence comes with collecting microscope slides associated with the research of Harvard scientists. The slides, when contextualized by other researcher-generated records, can provide a rich understanding of the science. There are other circumstances as well. For example, the museum has occasionally taken in remains to make sure they receive appropriate care, but such cases are exceedingly rare.

Are there remains of individuals in the museum’s collection and, if so, what is the scope?

Hall: The legacy anatomical and pathological collection is composed of human remains, mostly components of individuals such as specific bones with trauma or diseased tissue like tumors. There are very few full skeletons in the museum collection. In total, there are approximately 3,200 osteological, 900 wet-tissue, and 200 anatomically prepared remains in the museum. They date from approximately 1780 to 1940, and primarily come from people in the greater Boston area, often from hospitals and private clinics after treatment.

Has the museum been involved in repatriating any individuals?

Hall: With the support and guidance of Harvard’s Peabody Museum and in consultation with native communities, the Warren has repatriated several individuals in accordance with NAGPRA. These repatriations have fundamentally shaped how the Warren thinks about modern medical museology, even in regard to collections outside of NAGPRA’s scope.

What are the greatest challenges and rewards for you as a curator of Warren Anatomical Museum during this particular moment in our nation’s reckoning with its past?

Hall: First, I am incredibly honored to play a part in this overall reconciliation. It has been and will be one of most important things I do in my career. There are significant challenges, however. As few anatomy and pathology museums still exist, there is little precedent to go by or established best practices to follow. Moreover, the information recorded with some cases is vague and incomplete, and when that reality is combined with the knowledge that there was a pernicious erasure of the details of the lives of enslaved people, exposing complete stories can be difficult. Also, with human remains collections, you are constantly confronting people’s humanity, making for heightened stakes, but that’s a motivating rather than a debilitating factor.

The rewards outweigh the challenges. This is a new educational moment. Museum collections are never static. We constantly reinterpret them in the context of the time in which they exist and then share this reexamination with the communities they impact. And we know past injustices shape our present. By exploring this part of our past, I’m hopeful that we can engage with the problems of our present.