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Penn Museum to Remove Skull Collection of Enslaved People

The Penn Museum, at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia (Wikimedia Commons)

The Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) announced that it will remove from view parts of its Morton Cranial Collection, which includes skulls of enslaved people. The museum is also considering the repatriation or reburial of the crania, which were unethically acquired. The decision marks a victory for UPenn students and local activists, who have formed the coalition Police Free Penn (PFP) to demand school-wide reforms and the collection’s removal and repatriation, but fails to address their full list of concerns and demands.

The objectionable collection belongs to Samuel George Morton, a 19th-century Philadelphia-born, UPenn-educated physician who collected hundreds of skulls, including those of enslaved Africans, Native Americans, and Cubans to try to reinforce his white supremacist, pseudoscientific theory that the brains of some races are larger than others.

A portion of the collection, which includes about 1,000 crania, is currently on view in glass display cases at a classroom within the museum’s Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials (CAAM).

Last year, a group of UPenn students who formed the Penn & Slavery Project presented a study that found that the Morton Collection includes 53 crania of enslaved individuals from Havana, Cuba and crania of two individuals enslaved in the United States. The study included information on other cases in which the university’s medical school has historically stolen body parts from enslaved people without consent after their death.

The students also researched UPenn’s ties to enslavers and found that 75 of the university’s former trustees owned humans, including its first provost, William Smith.

The Penn Museum has not responded to Hyperallergic’s repeated requests for comment.

The Penn Museum is under pressure to abolish the Morton Collection (Windell Oskay/Flickr)

Last week, the museum posted an update on the Morton collection’s webpage, announcing that the items in the CAAM classroom will be relocated to storage before the end of July. However, the museum’s director, Julian Siggers, told UPenn’s student newspaper, the Daily Pennsylvanian, that the collection will still be accessible for research.

In addition, the update said that the museum is “working towards repatriation or reburial” of the crania of enslaved individuals in the collection but reserved that the issue is “complicated” because “not much is known about these individuals other than that they came to Morton from Cuba.”

The museum has also amended the collection’s webpage to say that it is “not a memorial lauding Morton or his scholarship” although it still describes the collection as “an exceptional historic resource.” Elsewhere on its website, the museum posted a statement in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, in which it recognizes that “this museum was built on colonialism and racist narratives.”

In an article published on the Medium last week, PFP criticized the museum’s move as insufficient and called for abolishing the Morton Collection, ceasing use of research acquired through studying the collection, and repatriating all its contents.

“This continued use of the Morton Collection for exhibition and research only reproduces Morton’s violent and white supremacist assumption,” the group wrote, “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.”

PFP continues to say that the museum’s commitments to repatriation have so far been “tepid and lacked any transparency to the public.”

“We know that repatriation is a difficult process. It should be,” the article reads. “The Museum must do more than ‘begin to explore the possibility,’ more than host innumerable further conversations around cultural heritage, all while it keeps in its possession the remains of ancestors.”

Jake Nussbaum, a third-year Anthropology PhD student and a member of PFP, welcomed the museum’s decision to remove part of the collection from public view but said it’s “the smallest step they could take.”

“It’s good that the museum took the collection out of public view,” Nussbaum told Hyperallergic in a phone conversation. “But at the same time, every day that the museum holds onto this collection, every day that it doesn’t make an effort to repatriate or have the remains properly interred by descendant spiritual communities, is another day that it claims ownership over the bodies of people’s ancestors.”

According to Nussbaum, students have reported experiencing trauma and distress for being exposed to the collection without consent or context as the classroom is often used to hold exams and other unrelated university activities.

Removing the crania from the UPenn classroom and publicizing the decision on the museum’s website are just some of PFP’s demands. The museum has yet to address a number of additional requests, the group says; those include dedicating a full-time staff position to work on the repatriation process of all remains and creating an advisory council inclusive of students and members of Philadelphia’s Black/African-descendant, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian communities.

Furthermore, the group demands an apology from the museum to affected communities, acknowledging the harm that the collection has caused them, and ending all use of data sourced from the collection without consent and remove all images of these items from the museum’s digital resources.

“If contact cannot be made with direct Black/African-descendant communities,” the group says, “heed the demand of West Philly activist Abdul-Aliy Muhammad to release the remains of Black/African persons to local Black spiritual communities who can determine the appropriate way to inter the remains.”

Muhammad, co-founder of the nonprofit Black and Brown Workers Cooperative, voiced this demand last year after attending a symposium held by Penn & Slavery Project. The Daily Pennsylvanian quotes him saying at the time that students’ presentations “show that the University is complicit in not just the violence levied against enslaved people but also in propagating false and horrific ideas of racial difference.”

Nussbaum said that the PFP’s larger goal is to “transform the ways in which the museum treats its collections.”

“We want the museum to make the commitment to repatriation much more material than it has and to be transparent around this process,” he said. “It’s easy enough to just update a website.”