The Penn Museum Moves Collection of Enslaved People’s Skulls Into Storage

Per a statement, the Philadelphia institution is actively working to ensure the bones’ “repatriation or reburial”

The front garden, reflecting pool and main entrance of the Penn Museum
The Penn Museum in Philadelphia, part of the University of Pennsylvania, as pictured in 2012 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Since 1966, the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology—more commonly known as the Penn Museum—has owned a collection of around 1,300 skulls unethically acquired by 19th-century physician Samuel George Morton. During and after his lifetime, white supremacists cited the skulls, which include the crania of more than 50 enslaved people, as pseudo-scientific evidence of a racial hierarchy and justification for slavery.

Last month, mounting pressure from student and local activist groups led the museum to announce plans to move the skulls on view to a storage unit.

As Hakim Bishara reports for Hyperallergic, critics argue that the museum should also deaccession and repatriate the skulls of enslaved people. Though the statement notes that the museum is “actively working towards repatriation or reburial of the crania of enslaved individuals within this Collection,” it adds that “not much is known about these individuals other than that they came to Morton from Cuba.”

The museum continues, “[W]e are committed to working through this important process with heritage community stakeholders in an ethical and respectful manner.”

In mid-July, student activist group Police Free Penn published a statement calling on the museum to stop exhibiting the Morton Collection, parts of which had been on display in a room used for college classes.

“This continued use of the Morton Collection for exhibition and research only reproduces Morton’s violent and white supremacist assumption: that the descendants of enslaved Africans, and of Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian communities do not have the right to care for their own ancestors; and that the desires of imperial knowledge-producers supersede the self-determination of Black and brown communities,” organizers wrote.

Morton, a prominent Philadelphia physician and a graduate of the university’s Perelman School of Medicine, collected the skulls in the early 19th century. As Gabriela Alvarado, a student who has researched the collection in depth, wrote for the Daily Pennsylvanian in June, many of the skulls were stolen from graveyards and battlefields and shipped to Morton by his colleagues.

A 2019 study by the student-led Penn and Slavery Project found that the collection includes the skulls of two people enslaved in the United States and 53 people enslaved in Havana, Cuba, per Hyperallergic. The group also reported that 75 former UPenn trustees enslaved humans and that the medical school had historically stolen body parts from deceased enslaved individuals.

Morton used his skull collection to incorrectly argue that white people were intellectually superior to other races, in part by relating brain size to intelligence—an argument debunked by modern science, but one that helped support racist beliefs and institutions in the United States. According to Anna Funk of Discover magazine, some researchers consider Morton “a founding father of scientific racism.”

His ideas, and those of other similarly minded scholars, have had a long-lasting impact: Racist biases persist in scientific research to this day, as Ramin Skibba reported for Smithsonian magazine last year.

“I see this as a basic question of consent,” Alvarado, the UPenn student who researched Morton, tells the New York Times’ Johnny Diaz. “We all have the right to decide where we rest when we die, and many chose places far away from a predominantly white institution like Penn, before being stolen from their family and their homelands.”

As protests against racism continue nationwide, many institutions—including UPenn—have started reckoning with the racist artifacts and ideas in their own public spaces and collections. In July, the Philadelphia university announced that it would remove a prominent statue of George Whitefield, an 18th-century cleric who enslaved people, according to the Daily Pennsylvanian.

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