Ann Kakaliouras

Ignoble Trophies: The Samuel G. Morton Collection, Repatriation, and Redress for the 21st Century

This essay is one of a series of “Participant Observations” on the removal of the Samuel Morton Cranial Collection from public display and legacies of scientific racism in museums. Read more reflections from this series here.

When “Police Free Penn: An Abolitionist Assembly,” a coalition of staff, faculty, and students at the University of Pennsylvania, called for the Morton Collection to be abolished, I was struck, yet again, by the inevitable resonance of the past in the present—if I may be so cliché. The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, my hometown, spurred Police Free Penn into action, and they included in their central goals the “redress [of] the legacy of racism, colonialism, and slavery on campus.” Since this summer, some of the skulls from the Morton Collection that were previously stored in a classroom behind glass have now been removed from anyone’s view. Similarly, early in this Black History Month (February 2021), a public Facebook post telling the story of “The Man Fortune,” has been making the rounds in a few anthropology and archaeology groups. Fortune, a husband, father, and slave in Connecticut, died accidentally in 1798, and his body was cut up and used as an anatomical specimen and then a museum display. Work by a coalition composed of the Mattatuck Museum’s African American History Project Committee, the NAACP, and Howard University culminated in his lying in state at the Connecticut capitol and his burial in a Waterbury cemetery in 2013. I hope the small acts of redress represented by Police Free Penn’s activism (along with that of other groups on and beyond Penn’s campus) and Fortune’s laying to rest may lead to a similar fate of repatriation and (re)burial for the entirety of the Morton Collection.

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Special Focus: The Morton Cranial Collection and Legacies of Scientific Racism in Museums

Pressures in and outside the academy are forcing museums to grapple ever more deeply with the legacies of scientific racism embedded and embodied in their anthropological collections. The removal of the nineteenth century Samuel George Morton collection of hundreds of human skulls from display in a classroom at the University of Pennsylvania in summer 2020, following student protest, is a provocative metaphor for these changes. In this “Participant Observations” series, the History of Anthropology Review has invited scholars to respond to the shifting fate of this and other physical anthropology collections, opening critical discussion of other anti-racist reckonings and aspects of decolonization in museums, ethical concerns about human remains collections, and the intertwined histories of racial science, medicine, and anthropology.

Read the series.