It is hard to believe that Wesleyan once had strong religious roots as a Methodist Missionary school. Now the venue of trippy concerts, progressive lectures, and sexologist talks, the Chapel is one of the last vestiges of this former identity. Unfortunately, it is not the only thing the missionaries left behind. Deep within the collections of the University lies an entire museum collection. Abandoned since the 1970s, this collection once housed over 500,000 specimens. Now, due mostly to theft and destruction, the Wesleyan University Archaeology and Anthropology Collections (WUAAC) dwindles at nearly 25,000 artifacts. Where did these artifacts come from, and, perhaps more importantly, where did they go? This semester, I set out to answer these questions and, instead, uncovered something much more sinister lurking behind the curtain.
Reverend Dr. Fisk, of Fisk Hall fame, was the first to mention the word “museum” in conjunction with the University. On Oct. 22, 1834, he addressed a crowded chapel with his vision for a new society at Wesleyan, The Missionary Lyceum. He believed this society would function to “further the missionary enterprise and all who profess to be governed by liberal principles and all who feel a deep interest in improving their fate by extending them the blessings of civilization and Christianity.” Daniel Kidder, Class of 1836, expounded on the reasoning behind a missionary museum in his correspondence with another Reverend. He stated that the two functions of the Missionary Museum were to use the collections to learn about different cultures so that missionaries could teach Christian principles as effectively as possible and to use the collections to serve as a tribute to the missionaries’ work, so that “their own collections may be examined by their friends, and in the future, be treasured as relics of their labors and of their love to man.”
The practice of collecting artifacts from different cultures was not unique at the time, nor is it unique now. This was a time when “science” was privileged over personal stories, and collecting meant taking without free prior and informed consent of the indigenous people. This means that the indigenous peoples may not have understood, because of a lack of proper information or outright coercion, the exact conditions under which the collectors were obtaining their items. During this time, Samuel Morton was conducting a craniological study that he believed would prove a hierarchy of races. He asserted that Caucasian people had larger skulls than Native Americans and African Americans, so they must be of a superior intelligence. Additionally, indigenous youth were being sent to residential boarding schools, and assimilation was the official policy of the United States government. It was in this climate that indigenous human remains and cultural objects were brought into the collections. The collections eventually grew so large that they took up residence in the former Wesleyan Museum in Judd Hall. In addition to these objects the museum contained many geological, zoological, and botanical specimens. The museum continued collecting and displaying artifacts until its closure in the 1950s. The contents were then packed up and placed in storage until they were uncovered in the 1970s. The in-between years were especially difficult for the collections because of the University’s awful storage conditions. As one University employee put it, “the collections were ravaged by two, four, and six- legged vermin,” in reference to the students and pests that destroyed some of the materials.
The University just issued a formal apology to all indigenous people for participating in these oppressive collecting practices, but what can we, the students, do to reconcile this historical oppression with a the liberal and progressive Wesleyan we want and deserve? The first goal is the return of all human remains and sacred objects taken by Wesleyan students so that they may be repatriated to their proper origins. These human remains and sacred objects are linked to the insidious cultural oppression of Native people across the world. Students should lead an advocacy campaign to support the full funding of the Repatriation program at Wesleyan. It is integral that we, the students of Wesleyan, take a look at our contribution to this oppression and think carefully about what we are doing to cause further harm or to take advanced action. Engaging in a dialogue around these issues, in partnership with indigenous peoples, will force the University to think about its past with a critical eye and move towards progressive reforms in the future. While faculty has contributed greatly, without a student push on these issues, the University will continue to drag its feet.
Gurak is a member of the class of 2016.