With its monumental Art Deco facade overlooking the Eiffel Tower, the Musée de l’Homme, or Museum of Mankind, is a Paris landmark. Every year, hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to this anthropology museum to experience its prehistoric skeletons and ancient statuettes.
But beneath the galleries, hidden in the basement, lies a more contentious collection: 18,000 skulls that include the remains of African tribal chiefs, Cambodian rebels and Indigenous people from Oceania. Many were gathered in France’s former colonies, and the collection also includes the skulls of more than 200 Native Americans, including from the Sioux and Navajo tribes.
The remains, kept in cardboard boxes stored in metal racks, form one of the world’s largest human skull collections, spanning centuries and covering every corner of the earth.
But they are also stark reminders of a sensitive past and, as such, have been shrouded in secrecy. Information on the skulls’ identities and the context of their collection, which could open the door to restitution claims, has never been made public, but is outlined in museum documents obtained by The New York Times.
A confidential memo said that the collection included the bones of Mamadou Lamine, a 19th-century West African Muslim leader who led a rebellion against French colonial troops; a family of Canadian Inuits exhibited in a Paris human zoo in 1881; and even five victims of the Armenian genocide in the mid-1910s.
“Sometimes, the supervisors would say, ‘We must hide,’” said Philippe Mennecier, a retired linguist and curator who worked for four decades at the Museum of Mankind. “The museum is afraid of scandal.”
That opacity has been at odds with France’s growing reckoning with its colonial legacy, which has shaken many of its cultural institutions. It has also hindered claims for restitution of items from former colonies or conquered peoples, in which human remains are often named as a priority — an issue currently roiling Europe’s grand museums.