University of North Carolina, Charlotte
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.
Physical anthropology began as a science of skulls. As the Italian practitioner Giuseppi Sergi put it in 1893, “The skull chiefly furnishes the characters of classification; it shows the external shape of the brain, the most important and the highest organ of man; the skull is the means of the classification of the brain.”
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.
My training was in laboratory-based biological anthropology, but I was always interested in the (checkered) history of the field. So back in 1986, when I was a genetics post-doc at the University of California, Davis (during the first generation of DNA sequencing), I also co-taught a graduate anthropology seminar in the history of bio-anthropology.