Book bound with human skin is removed from Harvard University library

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NYT – Of the approximately 20 million books in libraries from the Harvard Universityone of them has long held a uniquely dark fascination, not for its contents, but for the material in which it was supposedly bound: human skin.

For years, the volume — a 19th-century French treatise on the human soul — was displayed and sometimes, in keeping with library tradition, was used in “hazing” new employees.

In 2014, the university gained attention and attracted humorous news coverage around the world with the announcement that it had used new technology to confirm that the binding was in fact human skin. But on Wednesday, the 27th, after years of criticism and debate, the university announced that it had removed the binding and would be exploring options for “a respectful final disposition of these remains.”

“After careful study, stakeholder engagement, and consideration, the Harvard Library and Harvard Museum Committee have concluded that the remains used in the book binding do not fit into the Harvard Library collection due to the ethically complex nature of the origins of the book and its subsequent history,” the university said in a statement.

The campus of Harvard University, in Cambridge, USA, where the book bound with human skin has been since 1934; the cover has now been removed for ethical reasons Photograph: Lisa Poole/AP

Harvard also said its treatment of the book, a copy of Arsène Houssaye’s Des Destinées de L’Ame, did not meet “ethical standards” of care and at times used a “sensationalistic, morbid and humorous tone.” inappropriate when disclosing it. The library apologized, saying it had “targeted and further compromised the dignity of the human being whose remains were used for its binding.”

The announcement came more than three years after the university announced extensive research into human remains in its collections as part of an intensifying reckoning with the role of slavery and colonialism in the establishment of universities and museums. In a statement, Harvard’s president at the time, Lawrence S. Bacow, apologized for the university’s role in practices that “put the academic enterprise above respect for the dead and human decency.”

The book bound with human skin was in the Houghton Library at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Photograph: AFP/Houghton Library/Harvard University

A report released in 2022 identified more than 20,000 human remains in Harvard’s collections, from complete skeletons to locks of hair, bone fragments and teeth. They included the remains of about 6,500 Native Americans, the handling of which is governed by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, as well as 19 of people of African descent who may have been enslaved.

The research also highlighted items whose origins lie outside the context of colonialism and slavery, including ancient burial urns that may contain ashes or bone fragments, dental samples from the early 20th century and, in Houghton Librarythe book Houssaye.

The origins of the book with human skin

The book arrived at Harvard in 1934, through the American diplomat John B. Stetson. It had been bound by its first owner, Dr. Ludovic Bouland, a French doctor, who inserted a handwritten note saying that “a book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering.”

A memo from Stetson, according to Houghton, said that Bouland had skinned an unknown woman who died in a French psychiatric hospital.

Harvard’s decision follows a pressure campaign led by Paul Needham, a prominent scholar of early modern books who formed an “affinity group” last May, calling for the binding to be removed and for the woman’s remains to be properly buried in France. The issue received renewed attention last week when the group released an open letter addressed to Harvard’s interim president, Alan M. Garber, which was also published as an advertisement in the The Harvard Crimson.

The letter, signed by Needham and two other group leaders, said the library had a history of handling the book “brutally and regularly, as a sensationalized display item.” The letter cited, in particular, a since-removed 2014 blog post about the scientific tests that called the research “good news for anthropodermic bibliopegy fans, bibliomaniacs, and cannibals.”

Treating the bound book as an item for display “seems to me to violate every conceivable concept of respectful treatment of human beings,” Needham said in an interview after the announcement. Choosing to remove the book from the collection and determining a respectful disposition for it, he added, was the “right decision.”

In a list of frequently asked questions released with the university’s announcement, Tom Hyry, director of Houghton, and Anne-Marie Eze, its associate librarian, said the library first imposed access restrictions in 2015 and instituted a total moratorium on any new research in February 2023. Now, with the binding removed, the text itself will be fully available to view, both in the library and online.

Hyry and Eze said they expected the process of researching the binding and deciding on its final disposition to take “months, or perhaps longer.”

This content was translated with the help of Artificial Intelligence tools and reviewed by our editorial team. Find out more in our AI Policy.

The article is in Portuguese

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