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.

My second day as a PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania, I entered classroom 190 in the CAAM labs of the Penn Museum—what I would later half-jokingly term the Penn Museum’s catacombs. As I sat, I took in the crania sitting on shelves lining the walls, naively assuming they were ethically collected medical specimens or realistic models. Later that week, one of my colleagues informed me: “those are Morton’s skulls.” My second time in the classroom, uneasy in my seat, I looked at the skulls immediately to my right, and observed that one of them had the number 990 and a label across its forehead: “Maya from Yucatan.” [1]

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