Deborah Thomas

R. Jean Brownlee Professor of Anthropology; Director, Center for Experimental Ethnography, University of Pennsylvania

Enclosures and Extraction: MOVE and the Penn Museum

This essay is the last 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.

I am writing as someone who sits in one of the oldest anthropology departments in the United States, which sits in one of the oldest ethnographic museums in the country, and the world. Our department played a key role in the elaboration of scientific racism in the 19th century, as scholars applied the insights of Darwinian evolutionary theory to develop racist ideas about human origins and culture. Daniel Brinton, for example, was the first professor of anthropology at Penn. Though he was trained as a medical doctor, Brinton was hired in 1886 as a Professor of Archaeology and Linguistics, having previously held the position of Professor of Ethnology and Anthropology at the Academy of Natural Sciences. He was also the president of the American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS) during the last years of the 19th century before he died in 1899, and an avid segregationist. In 1896, while president of the AAAS, Brinton argued in Popular Science Monthly that “the black, the brown and the red races differ anatomically so much from the white…that even with equal cerebral capacity they never could rival its results by equal efforts.”[1] Brinton publicly advocated theories of scientific racism across several scientific institutions in Philadelphia. He believed that acquired “traits” developed within particular environments were passed down from generation to generation, and this laid the basis for later proponents of the “culture of poverty” paradigm.

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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.