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.

Over the past year, many museums have reflected on their internal structural inequalities. Anthropology museums face the added challenge of addressing the history of anthropological collecting, display, and research. Reflecting on recent protests concerning the Penn Museum’s ownership and use of human remains, I find myself considering the variability of museological encounters, and the diversity of affective responses to everyday museum practices. I share the following vignette to highlight the emotional impacts of normalizing and encouraging the routine handling and display of ancestors whose bodies—“specimens” in the museum—represent historical violence against Black and Brown people, and others. 

I started working at the Penn Museum in the fall of 2011. In early October, staff were called to pose for a photo for International Archaeology Day. New and eager to meet people, I arrived in the gallery to find staff members passing out Indiana Jones-style fedoras. Recalling an undergraduate professor intoning, “Indiana Jones does not represent archaeology,” I politely declined a hat. Moments later, metallic creaking and the soft sound of rolling wheels approached, then halted. That sound was followed by the sight of a metal cart filled with human skulls and two people distributing them as photo props. I stood in shock, unable to utter words, letting a soft headshake and withdrawn hands decline for me. After we posed for the camera, everyone dispersed back to their offices to carry on with the day. I was left emotionally devastated. This was my first encounter with the “Morton Collection,” and the first of many workdays derailed.

Reflecting back on this experience, I realize that my prior expectations of contemporary museum practice were an idealized fiction, informed by a contested set of principles. As a young Native museum professional, I was traumatized by the normalcy—the violence—of handling ancestral remains without consent, and other museum workers’ apparent revelry in the possession of these remains.

Several years later, the museum opened classroom “CAAM 190” to display the Morton Collection.[1] With faux dark wood cabinets with clear glass doors lit by overhanging, industrial-style black sconces, the design recalls the décor of an antique curiosity cabinet, but this room is not a holdover from the museum’s past. It opened in 2014 and was lauded by the museum and the university.[2] In fact, this new skull room was a product of institutional self-reflection, the very same process that is being asked of museums at this moment in 2021. 

The classroom was designed to encourage research and teaching that includes uncovering anthropology’s complicity in colonial violence and scientific racism. Despite those progressive missions, some students have expressed difficulty learning while surrounded by crania, many of which have derogatory terms written across their foreheads. Similarly, some Black and Brown employees refuse to work in the classroom and express difficulty entering the building each morning knowing that ancestors are displayed, handled, and researched without their consent.[3] In discussions about museum change, considering a museum’s internal communities, such as students and employees who are witness to and made complicit in everyday museum practices, may reveal structural inequities that must also be grappled with.

In 2020, the widespread news and social media distribution of videos of Black individuals killed by police officers raised concerns about the additional trauma these videos cause to Black and Brown viewers.[4] With this in mind, we should consider whether displaying ancestral remains like those in the Morton Collection causes trauma to people who must repeatedly witness them. Despite best intentions to teach about anthropology’s colonial history, museum visitors—along with students and employees—may experience trauma when encountering normalized violence against the remains of ancestors in the museum. The dismissal of the emotional labor required to be Black or Brown and operate successfully within this environment, and the desensitization toward colonial trauma encouraged by its active reproduction, constantly remind us that scientific inquiry overrides our wellbeing.    

One of the positive outcomes of 2020 has been a heightened awareness of the everyday violence, trauma, and inequality experienced by people of color. Museums must also consider their role in producing trauma today. How and when do we decide that new ethical priorities outweigh original research missions? Are museums addressing their histories in ways that contribute to social justice, or are they inadvertently reproducing trauma for internal and external stakeholders? Is creating new trauma ever justifiable in the service of education? Who gets to decide? 

In a recent letter, Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow announced a steering committee on human remains in the university’s museum collections. Signalling a desire to acknowledge past practices and also create the opportunity for healing, he wrote, “I apologize for Harvard’s role in collection practices that placed the academic enterprise above respect for the dead and human decency… we cannot—and should not—continue to pursue truth in ignorance of our history.”[5] Bacow wrote two words that were absent from many of the statements of solidarity from museum leaders in 2020: “I apologize.” In the coming year, museum leaders should reflect on the power of these words and view them as the first step toward healing—inclusive of students and employees who are so often forgotten in these discussions—and to view healing as a necessary component of social justice.


[1] Remains that fall under the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) are not displayed in the Penn Museum.

[2] See “New Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials (CAMM), in Penn Museum’s Renovated Conservation and Teaching Labs,” University of Pennsylvania Almanac, 61: 7 (September 30, 2014). Accessed January 31, 2021.

[3] Students and employees have also expressed being emotionally taxed by the knowledge that many cultural items are also awaiting reconnection with their communities of origin, and the opportunity to be repatriated.

[4] See Alyssa V. Richardson, “The Problem With Police-Shooting Videos,” The Atlantic (August 30, 2020). Accessed January 31, 2021.

[5] Lawrence S. Bacow, “Steering Committee on Human Remains in Harvard Museum Collections,” Harvard University (January 27, 2021). Accessed January 31, 2021.

Stephanie Mach: contributions / website /