This essay introduces 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.

As part of ongoing discussions about racism and calls for anti-racist work, and with an eye toward thinking about how anthropology has historically contributed to structures of inequality, the History of Anthropology Review is beginning a new series of Participant Observations. This series of essays was provoked by the summer 2020 removal of the Samuel George Morton cranial collection—which includes the remains of over 50 enslaved people born in Africa—from public display at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia. Penn, and more recently Harvard, have committed to historical research of their physical anthropology collections and to pursuing repatriation, reburial, commemoration, and other futures for the remains of African-descendant and enslaved people contained within them. The shifting fates of these collections creates space for critical discussion of other anti-racist reckonings, the push toward decolonization in museums, ethical concerns about the collection, analysis, and display of human remains, and the intertwined histories of racial science, medicine, and anthropology. 

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