Margaret M. Bruchac
University of Pennsylvania
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.
The ideological claims and scientific practices that transformed Indigenous Native American bodies into public specimens emerged from racial prejudices that colonized both the living and the dead. Philadelphia physician Samuel George Morton inferred that European “conquering invaders” had some measurable innate superiority over the “aboriginal races.” His efforts inspired other researchers, who manipulated dead bodies to support their search for evidence of a social hierarchy that placed white Europeans topmost. This research was considered necessary: as Franz Boas put it, “It is most unpleasant work to steal bones from a grave, but what is the use, someone has to do it.”
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.
Anthropological futures are difficult to envision without reckoning with anthropological pasts. The present is filled with an increasing theoretical emphasis on the trans-cultural and trans-national, but on a material level, we are still haunted by the legacies of collecting the Indigenous (a practice that has long been central to the anthropological project). Continue reading