VanJessica Gladney has been a member of the Penn and Slavery Project at the University of Pennsylvania since its conception in 2017. As an undergraduate, she conducted research about Penn’s connections to slavery on its original and current campuses. Her research
resulted in the removal of the George Whitefield statue from the campus. After
graduation, she served as the project’s Public History Fellow, presenting information about the project throughout the greater Philadelphia area and building the project’s website. As of 2019, she is a Ph.D. student in History at the 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.
In both 2006 and 2016, the University of Pennsylvania released statements denying any connections to the institution of slavery. Since 2017, The Penn and Slavery Project (P&SP) has repeatedly challenged and disproven that claim, revealing the many ways in which “America’s first university” benefitted from and contributed to the institution. But that denial is not unique to Penn; it reflects the tendency to value optics over functions, the idea of focusing on the way things look instead of the way things work. That’s a U.S. tradition. In the U.S., we release statements, circulate textbooks, and wave flags that paper over histories that make us uncomfortable. We have statues that elevate some historical figures and cast others in shadow.
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.