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.

It was good to learn recently of the decision, by the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Museum, to arrange for the decent burial of the crania of fifty-three enslaved people; crania which were acquired by Philadelphia physician and anthropologist, Samuel George Morton (1799-1851). Along with many other U.S. institutions, the Penn Museum has complied with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in repatriating Native American crania from the collection. Hopefully the burial of the bones of these enslaved people will encourage the Penn and other U.S. museums to take a more active approach in returning the enslaved ancestors of Australian Indigenous communities for burial.

Speaking about the ancestral bodily remains of Indigenous Australians as enslaved ancestors is no rhetorical conceit.  Securing the return of the dead for burial has been a difficult and stressful spiritual burden, falling especially on Elders within Aboriginal communities, because it is believed that unless these Old People—as they are respectfully called—are laid to rest in the right place in the traditional country of their ancestors, after performing the correct ceremonies and rituals, they will wander in torment. In many communities, the plundering of burial places and treatment of the dead as if they were inert objects in medico-scientific collections is thought to have contributed to the spiritual and environmental degradation and suffering of the country in which they were laid to rest. As the late Tom Treverrow, Elder of the Ngarrindjeri Nation, observed when reburying the bones of his ancestors returned from the Anatomy Department of the University of Edinburgh:

All those Old People and the people we got here, [they are] all our family. We know where they were taken from, illegally taken from their burial grounds: their resting places and we know that they are our ancestors, we are connected to them…We know that their spirit has been at unrest. We believe that the things that happen around us—our lands and waters—is all connected. It’s part of it, and what’s happening here is part of the healing process, when we bring our Old People home.[1]

Indigenous Australians speak of repatriation, rather than of the “return of the remains” of their ancestors, believing that the spirits as well as the mortal remains of their Old People are making the journey home. 

As is well known, Samuel Morton erroneously believed that the contours of the cranial bones of Native Americans and peoples of African ancestry betrayed characteristic signs of racially-based psychological inferiorities. However, it was the skulls of an Aboriginal Australian man and woman which he acquired in the mid-1840s that Morton saw as providing perhaps the clearest evidence of racially specific correlations of skull shape and intellectual capacity. He acquired the skulls of this man and woman by exchanging North American natural history specimens with Sydney’s Australian Museum.[2] Presenting the skulls at a meeting of Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences, he observed that their shape left him unsurprised to see blunt force trauma in the man’s skull due to what he believed was the “pugnacious and irascible character of the Australian savages.”[3]

What Morton did not consider was the possibility that the trauma was not the result of a tribal dispute, but caused by a blow from a military cutlass or rifle butt. The 1830s saw widespread resistance by the Wiradjuri and other nations of central and northern New South Wales to the invasion of their ancestral lands by the upper echelons of settler society to graze sheep and cattle. And the bones of the victims of frontier terror also numbered among the “rare and curious specimens” that were added to numerous comparative anatomy and anthropology collections of the kind inherited by the Penn Museum from Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences in 1966, a century after Morton’s cranial researches.  

To date, the remains of 1,618 Indigenous Australian ancestors have been returned from overseas museums to their community of origin for burial or keeping in a resting place under Indigenous care.[4]

Planning for a resting place has recently been commissioned by Australia’s federal government, in response to recommendations based on nearly a decade of wide consultation with Indigenous communities and their representative organizations. Importantly, the consensus is that this resting place should be more than a sepulcher for those unknown ancestors. The hope is that it will be a place of remembrance, reflection and education, with a particular focus on fostering public understanding of how and why these Old People came to be in anatomy and anthropology collections.  And this is important. Achieving the reburial of the remains of those who died in slavery, or in the wake of colonial violence and dispossession, is only a first step. Museums now deciding the future of anatomy and anthropology collections similar to Samuel Morton’s are in a prime position to develop exhibitions and educational programs aiming to do two things.  The first is to encourage understanding of how and why the knowledge-making that these collections enabled was implicated in slavery and Indigenous dispossession. It is too easy to write off Morton and other prominent investigators of human bodily and psychological variation during the long nineteenth century as pseudoscientists, whose writings served to justify the evils of slavery and Indigenous dispossession on bogus racial grounds.  Rather, we would do better to recognize that they were leading figures in the medico-scientific mainstream of their time, and that our knowledge-making today—while shaped by different social and cultural contingencies—is still arguably grounded in ontological and epistemological traditions that continue to marginalize the knowledges and knowers of those peoples whose right to rebury the remains of their ancestors long held by Western scientific institutions is now being recognized. And a second obligation that follows from this is transforming museums into places where Indigenous peoples can help us understand the potential of their sciences, their philosophical traditions and their ways of living to open our minds to possibilities beyond the pernicious material and psychic legacies of colonialism. 


[1]Hemming, Steven and Christopher Wilson. “The ‘First Stolen Generations’: Repatriation and Reburial in Ngarrindjeri Ruwe (Country).” In The Long Way Home: The Meaning and Values ofRepatriation, edited by Paul Turnbull and Michael Pickering, 183–94. Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2010.

[2]Meigs, James Aitken and Samuel G. Morton. Catalogue of Human Crania in the Collection of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1857. See also Morton, Samuel G. and George Combe, Crania Americana; or, a Comparative View of the Skulls of Various Aboriginal Nations of North and South America. London: Simpkin, Marshall & Co., 1839; and Morton, Samuel G. “Remarks on the Skulls of Two Natives of New Holland.” Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia 2 (1845): 292–93.

[3]Ibid., 292.

[4]”International Repatriation.” Office of the Arts, Australian Government. (Accessed February 26, 2021).




Paul Turnbull: contributions / website /