Universidade de Lisboa, Instituto de Ciências Sociais
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 part one and more reflections from this series here.
Part 2. ‘Recollection’
Dr. Holmie recalled the skull had belonged to one of his former patients, a child “owned” by the hospital’s keeper and who died under his medical care. “The boy,” Holmie wrote to Davis:
…was owned by the keeper or headman of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s hospital at Fort Vancouver, Columbia River, in 1840 and previously under my medical care. He was when in health a very fat, well featured, cheerful little fellow much liked by those he came in contact with on account of his mild and obliging disposition and he died after a few days illness—apparently inflammation of the brain, or its membranes.
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 recent debate over the relocation and restitution of over 50 human crania of enslaved people in Samuel George Morton’s collection at the Penn Museum prompts a reflection on anthropology’s entanglements with the history of slavery. When the HAR editorial team asked me to offer some thoughts a propos this event, I revisited my research notes in search of archival traces of these complex crossings. This short note is an analytical reflection about one such trace—a letter exchange found in the private papers of another notorious race scholar and skull collector and Morton’s contemporary) British surgeon Joseph Barnard Davis (1801-1881). I ask how enslavement becomes epistemically and politically embedded in collections of human remains. I ask how historiographical work may help us to counter, subvert, heal, and remember the presence and effects of these past processes today.
Part 1. ‘Inscription’
Fervently devoted to racial craniology, Joseph Barnard Davis spent his life and wealth assembling a comparative anthropological collection of human crania. By 1880 he was the owner of the world’s largest private collection of skulls, an achievement inspired partly by Samuel George Morton (1799-1851) in Philadelphia. Davis’s skull collecting and investigations were, like Morton’s, founded upon conceptions grounded in scientific racism. It reflected his belief, for example, that specific physical features of the cranium represented differences and hierarchies in mental attributes and moral and social states; and that (inferior) African “black” and (superior) “white” European human races were separate “natural” occurrences with separate origins. Davis’s collection was based on a vast network of skull suppliers and collaborators based in a number of different colonies and territories outside Europe. His manuscript catalogues and letters, held in the Royal College of Surgeons in London, along with what survives of his cranial collection, show how the collection was generated and how certain human skulls entered the museum embedded in histories of enslavement.
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.