New Investigative series from The Washington Post reveals the Smithsonian’s “Racial Brain Collection”

New Investigative series from The Washington Post reveals the Smithsonian’s “Racial Brain Collection”

In a first-of-its-kind series, The Washington Post investigates the Smithsonian’s “Racial Brain Collection,” assembling and making public the most extensive analysis and accounting of the collection to date.

The Post’s year-long investigation found that the Smithsonian possesses 255 brains, most of which were removed upon death from Black, Indigenous people and other people of color in the early 20th century, and were used to further now-debunked theories about anatomical differences between races. The Post found the brains were likely taken without consent from individuals or their families. The museum’s “Racial Brain Collection” is part of a larger collection that is one of the largest in the world, containing at least 30,700 human bones and body parts from more than 80 countries.

The Post spent a year examining the collection, reviewing thousands of documents including studies, field notes and personal correspondence, and interviewed experts, Smithsonian officials, and descendants and members of communities whose remains were targeted for collection.

Reporting, editing, production and support on “The Collection” involved a team of more than 80 people, including 74 Post journalists and staffers, two independent contributors and four students from the American University-Washington Post practicum program.

The Post’s investigation found the brains were collected from countries including the Philippines, Germany, the Czech Republic and South Africa. Many were also taken from Black residents in the Washington D.C. area. The scope of the brains collection has not previously been publicly disclosed.

In approaching the work, The Post sought to accurately represent affected Indigenous communities and respect the sensitivities of the investigation’s findings amongst relatives of those whose remains were taken. Post reporters traveled across the country and to the Philippines, tracking down relatives and affected communities to inform them of the collection and to ensure their perspectives and stories were relayed throughout the series. Many told The Post they were not aware of the Smithsonian’s collections before Post reporters informed them.

“The Post is proud to produce such revelatory investigative reporting, in this case illuminating century-old, racially based injustices that have plagued communities in our backyard and around the world,” said Sally Buzbee, executive editor. “’The Collection’ is an example of how The Post can continue to empower and deepen our engagement with local and international communities as we expand the scope of our investigative reporting.”

While The Post’s investigation was underway, Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III in April issued a statement apologizing on behalf of the institution for the collection of bodies and body parts, and announced the creation of a task force to determine what to do with the remains. Bunch told The Post, “I think it’s important for me as a historian to say that all the remains, all the brains, need to be returned if possible, [and] treated in the best possible way.” The Smithsonian has since contacted the Philippines Embassy with information on the human remains in the museum’s possession, and institution officials have met with embassy officials.

Through investigative reporting and alternate mediums, readers can expect to learn about the collection and its curator, Ales Hrdlicka, who was long revered by the Smithsonian despite his well-documented racist theories and support of eugenics. Readers can also expect to learn about the life and death of an 18-year-old Igorot woman, Maura, whose cerebellum was likely taken by Hrdlicka after she traveled in 1904 from the Philippines to the World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri and died of pneumonia.

“Revealing such crucial information for our audience is at the core of what we do,” said David Fallis, deputy investigations editor. “Above all, it is our public service mission.”

In addition to preeminent reporting on the collection and on Hrdlicka, The Post tells the story of Maura’s life and death through illustrated reporting, which will be available in English and Filipino, and in digital, print and video formats. The English version will be titled “Searching for Maura” and the Filipino version “Paghahanap kay Maura.” The Post worked with Ren Galeno, a Filipino visual artist based in Davao City, Philippines, to illustrate the story and with Christian Benitez, a translator largely based in the Philippines, to translate the story into Filipino.

“We are proud to have partnered with a Filipino artist and translator on this series to provide accessibility to the international communities it features,” said Sarah Childress, deputy editor for long-term investigations.

On August 16, “Searching for Maura” and “Paghahanap kay Maura” will be available online to subscribers and for purchase in book form via The Washington Post’s store. Sign up here to be notified when the books go on sale.

On August 16, video versions of “Searching for Maura” and “Paghahanap kay Maura” will be available on YouTube and on Amazon Freevee via Washington Post Television.

On August 20, Sunday print subscribers will receive excerpts of “Searching for Maura” and “Paghahanap kay Maura.”

On August 16 at 4pm ET, Michael Blakey, a member of the newly created Smithsonian Human Remains Task Force, will join Washington Post Live for a virtual conversation. Sign up to watch the interview here.

Available on August 17 on YouTube and Amazon Freevee will be a behind-the-story video about The Post’s investigation. The video will include details on how the investigation started, behind the scenes of reporting processes, insights and methodologies and the Smithsonian’s response to the findings.

Read key findings from series and the first installment of the series, “Revealing the Smithsonian’s ‘Racial Brain Collection.'”

The series will continue to roll out through August 17.

Scroll to Top