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.
In 2006, while working at the Colorado Historical Society, I played a small role in helping prepare a collection of ancient American Indian human remains for their journey home. As a recent college graduate with some professional experience related to repatriation, I thought I knew something about the problematic history leading to the widespread exploitation of Native remains and the creeping expansion of scientific racism. With this project, however, my eyes were about to be opened to this story and its importance.
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 path as a historian forever changed during my first year in the archives.
When I began working at the National Anthropological Archives (NAA) in an ominous, cloudy box of a building near the end of the Washington DC metro train line, I thought I might write a dissertation on exhibiting material culture. Secretly, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing or looking for. What I did know by this point in my research life and education as a historian was how to ask questions and search for answers from different perspectives. I also knew how to benefit from the expertise of archivists. The brilliance of archivists, in fact, is where this story really took a fundamental turn for me.
During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, German universities inspired the reformation of higher learning institutions throughout Europe and the United States (Barth et. al. 2005). Early museums and museum pioneers in the United States were likewise influenced by the collecting practices and ideas of their German counterparts. High profile museum anthropologists in various national contexts—Franz Boas among them—relied on connections and correspondence with German colleagues. For a time anthropology in German museums appeared unproblematically forward thinking, growing out of a liberal-humanist tradition to connect Europe with the rest of the world, shaped by the desire to extend beyond curiosity cabinets toward the systematic, empirically driven study of mankind.