NEW YORK CITY—For nearly a year and a half, one of the most important scientific posts at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) here went vacant: curator of biological anthropology, whose broad responsibilities include carrying out research in primatology and human origins as well as managing the museum’s huge skeletal collection. The gap resulted from a long and tumultuous #MeToo saga that sent shock waves through the AMNH and the international anthropology community. But in late April the museum revealed it had, at last, filled the position. The hire has left researchers optimistic the institution—and the field itself—are finally taking sexual misconduct seriously.
The position had been open since December 31, 2016, when the previous curator, paleoanthropologist Brian Richmond, resigned in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations. In November 2014 a research assistant whom Richmond directly supervised accused him of sexually assaulting her after a scientific meeting in Italy two months earlier. The museum conducted a total of three investigations into the allegations.
The first investigation, conducted by the AMNH’s head of human resources after the research assistant reported the alleged assault to his department, resulted in Richmond being removed as her supervisor and receiving a “zero tolerance” warning. But he kept his job. The second was conducted by the museum’s in-house legal team in spring 2015, soon after the research assistant spoke openly to colleagues about the encounter at a scientific meeting. It resulted in no additional action. Only the third investigation—launched after the AMNH learned Science magazine was planning a story on the research assistant’s assault accusations as well as on claims by female students Richmond had harassed them at a field school in Kenya—ended with the curator’s resignation at the end of 2016.
Richmond has contended in previous statements the encounter with the research assistant was consensual, and has denied he harassed the students in Kenya. Neither Richmond nor New York City–based lawyer Lance Gotko, his last known attorney of record in the misconduct case, responded to repeated requests for comment for this article.
Ashley Hammond, an expert on the evolution of locomotion in great apes and early humans, will take up the post on June 1. Hammond, who has extensive experience excavating and studying primate fossils in Africa (especially Kenya), says she is excited about the new research opportunities this position will allow her to pursue—including expanding the number of field sites at which she will be able to work.
Other anthropologists are celebrating the news. “It’s brilliant,” says Rebecca Ackermann of the University of Cape Town in South Africa, who helped the museum in its investigations of Richmond and had raised an alarm about the accusations against him in the scientific community. “They hired a woman, and someone who has incredibly strong fieldwork in Africa.” Hammond’s hiring “breaks down a lot of barriers because there aren’t many female-led teams doing work on the ground in Africa,” she adds. “It’s a really strong statement.”
Ackermann also thinks the museum has now begun to make fighting sexual harassment a stronger priority. “They are taking it seriously, and actively trying to make cultural changes and not just gloss over it,” she says.
Anthropologists have confronted allegations of sexual misconduct before. The #MeToo movement in anthropology did not begin with the Richmond case, but these accusations provided “an internal shock to our system,” according to Susan Perkins, a microbiologist and president of the AMNH’s scientific senate, which represents the research staff and advises the museum administration on research, exhibition and educational programs. In 2014 a team of anthropologists published a Survey of Academic Field Experiences, an anonymous online survey of researchers involved in fieldwork. In the SAFE study, as it was called, 64 percent of 658 respondents reported suffering some kind of sexual harassment. And the following year a spate of sexual harassment allegations at its annual meeting led the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA) to beef up the organization’s code of ethics.
“When the Richmond allegations initially became widely known, the field was already at a heightened state of awareness,” says David Strait of Washington University in Saint Louis, who had collaborated closely with Richmond. After the SAFE study was published he began distributing it to all his students, both male and female, although “we know that most of the victims of sexual misconduct are women and most abusers are men, meaning that sexual misconduct is fundamentally a problem with male behavior,” he says.
Nevertheless, the anthropology community has sometimes been divided over how to deal with misconduct within its ranks. One key issue has been how quickly researchers should dissociate themselves from accused colleagues. After the allegations against Richmond surfaced—and especially after his resignation—anthropologists debated behind the scenes whether his name should be removed from upcoming publications in which he had been involved. Some argued doing so would harm students and postdoctoral researchers who had worked on these projects; others countered it would send a clear message that abusers were no longer welcome in the anthropological community.
At the same time some anthropologists have questioned the value of focusing on individual cases as opposed to concentrating on changing a scientific culture that has allowed misconduct to continue. Leslie Aiello, current president of the AAPA, sees the Richmond affair as “old news,” adding, “we learned from it, everybody agreed that accommodations had to be made and our awareness was raised.” For Aiello, the important story is that the hiring of Hammond—along with her husband, biological anthropologist Sergio Almécija, who will join the museum as a senior research scientist—“is bringing a young generation [of scientists] into an aging department,” where many colleagues are close to retirement.
Although the AMNH and the anthropology community have had to travel a rocky road to get to happier times, many researchers say the painful process was worth it in the end. “Following the Richmond scenario we totally overhauled our harassment policy,” Perkins says. In the past sexual harassment training at the museum consisted of watching “an outdated videotape,” she says, adding there was a “tone of lack of seriousness in how we treated the issue.” Under the AMNH’s new guidelines everyone hired at any staff level gets in-person harassment training. “Just that in itself has been a major improvement,” Perkins says.
The museum declined to make its vice president of human resources, Dan Scheiner, (who is responsible for administering the harassment guidelines) available for an interview to discuss their implementation in detail. But in a statement provided to Scientific American, AMNH spokesperson Kendra Snyder said that although “many of our current procedures were used previously…we have standardized, clarified—and perhaps most importantly—broadly communicated…the ways in which complaints are filed, investigated, and resolved. The Museum community is now well aware of what behaviors are prohibited and how to specifically report instances of harassment or other misconduct.”
As the AMNH turns the page on the Richmond case, some anthropologists are clearly breathing a sigh of relief. Says Carol Ward of the University of Missouri, Hammond’s former Ph.D. supervisor: “I think we are all glad to be able to focus on science and excellence.”