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.
Stepping in around February, I worked on the project through the spring and summer. Set up in a designated storage facility, I spent what felt like countless hours in the Colorado museum carefully following instructions from tribal elders to prepare their ancestors for their highly-anticipated journeys. The ungainly plastic sheeting covering some bones and bodies was to be removed in favor of fresh organic containers. Each catalog number needed to be confirmed and checked off a list. Centuries-old remains thought to be of men were to be separated from women and children. Once the bodies were finally prepared, museum staffers helped me carefully load them into a van, waiting to carry the precious cargo to a final resting place. The early autumn moment represented the culmination of years of hard work offered by activists, organizers, museum professionals, and tribal leaders from more than twenty different Native American communities.
As we made our way to the place where the remains were to be reinterred, it was clear that emotions would run high. Since the passage of the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) repatriation and reburial has served as both a necessary and often difficult step forward. While the framework established by NAGPRA is largely recognized for its legal significance, the new law also touched off important and long overdue emotional work left in history’s steady wake. It helped to establish new connections or repair frayed relationships, and pushed some toward greater recognition of past wrongs. But this did not mean that the process would lead simply to relief or satisfaction. Recent surveys suggest that while a majority of Native respondents felt their successful repatriation experiences had led to healing, there are also generational differences of opinion about the matter, with younger tribal members more likely to respond in the affirmative.
As I worked near the burials with a small group, passing each set of remains to a designated tribal elder, I vividly remember the moment when the eldest man stopped everything. He paused, gathered himself, reflected on the moment at hand, then looked directly into my eyes. “You did this,” he told me. The hurt in his voice made it clear he was referring to the painful legacy of grave robbing and skull collecting in the American Southwest. With the bones and dried bodies laid out before us, the lesson sat right in front of me, painful and yet abundantly clear. As a young, white, male, museum professional, I represented a contemporary manifestation of the legacy of colonialism, theft, and abuse that was thrust upon American Indians so violently between the fifteenth and twentieth centuries. That same legacy had brought us to that exact time and place in the twenty-first century. I remember it as an emotionally raw moment for everyone involved. It was an experience I have thought about a great deal and continue to ponder as I grow older. The event pushed me to more deeply consider my positionality in the ongoing story of museums and anthropology. It still does.
In 2020, the University of Pennsylvania moved about 1,300 skulls, amassed by physician Samuel George Morton (1799-1851), away from public display. In so doing, the museum implicitly acknowledged Morton’s role in the scientific racism of his generation. Morton and many scientists (and pseudoscientists) viewed the world as one where white males were placed at the top of a presumed talent hierarchy whereas those of African, Asian, or American Indian descent were placed at a lower position.
Although given new impetus in summer 2020, calls for change and reconsideration of the broader legacies of colonialism and racism as they relate to museums have existed for some time, dating back to at least the 1960s. More recently, in August 2017, La Tanya S. Autry and Mike Murawski launched the #MuseumsAreNotNeutral hashtag and social media campaign, expanding a discourse about these difficult subjects in the public arena. Such conversations have made it impossible for institutions such as the Penn Museum to carry on as though nothing has changed.
How might recent history create additional space for critical discussions about colonialism’s legacy in museums, the importance of new anti-racism initiatives, and the many ethical concerns connected to the treatment of human remains in cultural institutions? How might we more fully add to this dialogue the intertwined histories of racial science, medicine, and anthropology? To begin, anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, and museum professionals should continue to engage in the critical self-reflection that has recently grown in the field. This should be expanded to include a greater number and variety of essential discussions with different groups, as opposed to the strictly internal assessments we sometimes discover at scholarly conferences and in the dense pages of academic journals. The conversation needs to be more open and dynamic, leading to new action by bringing together the many voices of those marked by this history. In light of this dark story, power and control need to be shifted away from its historical nexus, to one more firmly grounded in a response to this legacy, through revitalization, return, and in some cases, reburial. This means that descendant groups and the diverse communities touched by museums should be afforded a greatly expanded degree of control. They deserve a chance to shape their futures, especially in light of historically being denied such agency. To create a better future for museums and anthropology, we must embrace this once-in-a-generation opportunity as a moment for long-overdue changes.
 Chip Colwell, “Can Repatriation Heal the Wounds of History?” The Public Historian 41.1 (2019): 93.
 For a thought-provoking primer on museums and potential responses to legacies of colonialism, see Amy Lonetree, Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012).
 For additional background see Ann Fabian, The Skull Collectors: Race, Science, and America’s Unburied Dead (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010). See also, Lee D. Baker, From Savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of Race, 1896-1954 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).