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.
In 2015, as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, my class had the opportunity to speak with Richard Lariviere, the then-director of the Field Museum, about museum ethics and repatriation. I had just been working on repatriation projects at Colorado State University, and had asked him whether it was difficult for museum staff to value Indigenous stakes in the objects/entities as much as their own stakes. His response was familiar to many situated within the museum and repatriation landscape:
“The Field Museum is compliant with both the letter and the spirit of the law.”
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.