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. 

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