By Harut Sassounian
The New York Times published on November 28, 2022, a shocking article by reporter Constant Méheut, titled: “A Paris Museum Has 18,000 Skulls. It’s Reluctant to Say Whose.”
The article reveals that the Musée de l’Homme (Museum of Mankind) in Paris, France, holds a “vast collection of human remains.” Stored in the basement of that museum are “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.” Five of the skulls belong to Armenian Genocide victims. The museum has not made public the information about the identities of the 18,000 skulls, fearing restitution lawsuits.
I read the December 15, 2021 report of a French Senate Committee on its discussion of a proposed law about the fate of the remains at the museum. During that meeting, Sen. Catherine Morin-Desailly, co-author of the proposed law, stated: “amazingly, we find in our collections skulls dating from the Armenian Genocide.” Sen. Pierre Ouzoulias, another co-author of the proposed law, added: “I was overwhelmed learning that five Armenian skulls of victims of the Armenian Genocide, which were recovered in Deir-ez Zor [Syria], are still in the collections of the Museum of Mankind.”
Since New York Times reporter Méheut mentioned in his article that he had obtained confidential documents about the human remains in the museum, I wrote to him asking if these documents contained any details about the skulls of the five Armenian Genocide victims. He informed me that they were female skulls which were collected by Emmanuel Passemard, a French prehistory specialist, during his explorations in Syria in 1925-1926. The Bulletin of the French Prehistoric Society reported that Passemard gave a lecture at the Sorbonne University in Paris on February 16, 1927, during which he described his trip to the banks of the Euphrates River in Syria.
Méheut wrote in his article that “while France has led the way in Europe in investigating and returning colonial-era collections of artifacts — cultural objects, made by human hands — it has lagged behind its neighbors when it comes to remains.” The claimant of the remains has to prove an ancestral connection. However, “French legislation has made any return a cumbersome and time-consuming process.”
Méheut added: “As with other 19th-century museums, the Museum of Mankind was initially a repository for items gathered from around the world. The skulls were collected during archaeological digs and colonial campaigns, sometimes by soldiers who beheaded resistance fighters. Prized by researchers working in the now-debunked field of race science, the remains then fell into relative oblivion. In 1989, Philippe Mennecier, the curator [of the museum], put together the first electronic database of the collection. It enabled him to identify hundreds of what he called ‘potentially litigious’ skulls — remains of anticolonial fighters and Indigenous people, collected as war trophies or plundered by explorers — that could be claimed by people wishing to honor their ancestors.”
Christine Lefèvre, a top official at the Museum of Natural History, which oversees the Museum of Mankind, and Martin Friess, who is responsible for the museum’s modern anthropology collections, told Méheut the information was withheld because of privacy concerns, fear of controversy and because of uncertainties around some remains’ identities. “But several scholars and lawmakers said the museum’s stance stemmed from a greater concern: that transparency could open the floodgates for restitution claims,” Méheut wrote. “Over the past two decades, France has returned only about 50 sets of remains, including to South Africa, New Zealand and Algeria.”
Méheut explained that “to make matters more complicated, objects in public museum collections are the property of the French state and cannot change ownership unless the return is voted into law — a cumbersome process that has sometimes led France to lend remains instead of ceding possession. A representative for France’s culture ministry said officials were working on a sweeping law to regulate future returns of human remains.” The French government has yet to accept “a bill passed by the Senate in January that would remove the need for Parliament to approve every restitution.”
During the French Senate committee hearing, referring to the skulls of victims of the Armenian Genocide, Sen. Ouzoulias told his colleagues: “This is intolerable. We risk a major diplomatic conflict with certain countries when they become aware of the content of our collections. It is time to stop this. We can no longer live with corpses in our closets.”
Now that Armenians have learned about the storage of the skulls of five Armenian Genocide victims in a French museum, I suggest that the Armenian government, through its embassy in Paris, make an immediate request for the return of these skulls to Armenia to be buried near the Armenian Genocide Memorial complex in Yerevan. These victims deserve a respectful burial after being stored in a box in the basement of a French museum for a century.