In DepthPaleontology

Natural history museums face their own past

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Science  29 Mar 2019:
Vol. 363, Issue 6434, pp. 1371-1372
DOI: 10.1126/science.363.6434.1371

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Summary

Step into the main hall of the Natural History Museum in Berlin and you'll be greeted by a towering dinosaur skeleton, the tallest ever mounted. Nearly four stories high and twice as long as a school bus, the sauropod Giraffatitan brancai was the largest dinosaur known for more than a half-century. It has been a crowd magnet since it was first displayed in 1937. But the tidal flats Giraffatitan bestrode 150 million years ago weren't in Europe. It lived in eastern Africa, today's Tanzania, much of which was a German colony when the fossil was unearthed in the early 1900s. Now, some Tanzanian politicians argue that the fossils should return to Africa. Berlin's Natural History Museum isn't the only one facing calls for the return of fossils, which echo repatriation demands for human remains and cultural artifacts. Many specimens were collected under conditions considered unethical today, such as brutal colonial rule that ignored the ownership rights and knowledge of indigenous people. The repatriation requests are prompting new questions about the stories of "discovery" that many museums have traditionally told.