Bring the Old People Home

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.

It was good to learn recently of the decision, by the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Museum, to arrange for the decent burial of the crania of fifty-three enslaved people; crania which were acquired by Philadelphia physician and anthropologist, Samuel George Morton (1799-1851). Along with many other U.S. institutions, the Penn Museum has complied with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in repatriating Native American crania from the collection. Hopefully the burial of the bones of these enslaved people will encourage the Penn and other U.S. museums to take a more active approach in returning the enslaved ancestors of Australian Indigenous communities for burial.

Continue reading

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.