Fetal skeletons. Decades-old brains from nameless patients. The bulging severed leg of a person who had elephantiasis. Silver Spring’s National Museum of Health and Medicine is a place of education, but it’s also a cabinet of morbid curiosities. The NMHM’s trove of bones, brains, skulls, and other medical specimens is part of one of the largest such collections in the world. But who were the people once attached to those body parts? And does a museum like this still make sense in the modern era?
The Army Medical Museum, as it was initially called, was established in 1862 and amassed a collection of “specimens of morbid anatomy,” gathered from Civil War battlefields and during massacres of Native Americans. One year after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, the museum moved into Ford’s Theatre, where it attracted throngs of tourists. (The museum still displays the bullet that killed the President.) A former Union soldier found his own amputated arm on display.
The ghoulish exhibits at the NMHM caused handwringing in its early years. “There was debate internally over the appropriateness of it being open to the general public, about whether women should be allowed in,” says Samuel J. Redman, who wrote the 2016 book Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums. Children were barred from entry.
For years, the museum occupied a prominent site on the National Mall, then moved to Walter Reed on Georgia Avenue in 1971. Today, it has its own building in Silver Spring, where it’s a field-trip destination for schoolkids. But as anthropological and medical museums reckon with questions of medical consent, repatriation of human remains, and histories of racism, some are facing questions. The Smithsonian—which still has more than 250 human brains originally collected in an attempt to prove racist anatomical theories—has created a task force to try to return remains to descendants. The Mütter Museum in Philadelphia has been publicly grappling with how it might adjust its mission and collection.
So far, the NMHM—which fell into relative obscurity when it relocated from the Mall—has avoided that kind of scrutiny. “The institution really lost this larger place in American consciousness,” says Redman. “But despite the fact that it’s not one of the main tourist attractions in the US anymore, it still is deserving of ethical and moral scrutiny.”
After several major newspapers recently covered the Mütter Museum’s internal debate over its past and future, Washingtonian reached out to the NMHM to ask if it’s engaging in similar self-examination.
Alofagia Oney, a communications officer representing the museum, wrote in an emailed response that the museum hadn’t heard many concerns from its visitors about the human remains in its collection. “The NMHM has received very few inquiries or comments about consent,” Oney said. “We will highlight individual stories where we know the patient/soldier and his physician were active participants in contributing materials and case histories to the museum.”
But these cases of active participation represent relatively few of the objects on display at the museum. And broader questions of medical consent are still important, Redman says. “I think it’s important for these processes to happen more publicly than museums are frankly demonstrating comfort with,” says Redman. “To see these conversations taking place more publicly would be a valuable thing.”
A version of this article appears in the October 2023 issue of Washingtonian.