Editor’s Introduction: The Morton Cranial Collection and Legacies of Scientific Racism in Museums

This essay introduces 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.

As part of ongoing discussions about racism and calls for anti-racist work, and with an eye toward thinking about how anthropology has historically contributed to structures of inequality, the History of Anthropology Review is beginning a new series of Participant Observations. This series of essays was provoked by the summer 2020 removal of the Samuel George Morton cranial collection—which includes the remains of over 50 enslaved people born in Africa—from public display at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia. Penn, and more recently Harvard, have committed to historical research of their physical anthropology collections and to pursuing repatriation, reburial, commemoration, and other futures for the remains of African-descendant and enslaved people contained within them. The shifting fates of these collections create space for critical discussion of other anti-racist reckonings, the push toward decolonization in museums, ethical concerns about the collection, analysis, and display of human remains, and the intertwined histories of racial science, medicine, and anthropology. 

In the following series, other members of the History of Anthropology Review‘s News editorial team and I have asked scholars to reflect on how anthropology and its history speak to these recent events.[1] Their essays touch on such themes as trauma and the ethics of displaying human remains, the obligation and stakes of provenance research for nineteenth-century skull collections and their legacies in medical education, the multiple and contested meanings of “descendant community,” the role of public history in the history of anthropology, and ongoing projects in both theorizing and undertaking the decolonization of museums. We enter into this dialogue with contributions from three Indigenous scholars with direct experience of the Morton collection at the Penn Museum. This initial group will be followed by additional contributions, released on a weekly basis, for at least the next two months. We warmly welcome proposals for additional reflections at news@histanthro.org

To contextualize  the human remains collections that our contributors discuss, we offer the following brief historical précis, and direct readers to the bibliography below.

Morton and the History of Cranial Race Science

The field of physical anthropology was significantly built on the bodily remains of non-white people, violently taken and made into specimens for comparative racial-anatomical studies. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, European and settler American anthropologists collected skulls, bones, and other body parts from gallows, graves, and anatomy theaters in an effort to categorize and rank human races on the basis of anatomical differences. Influenced by physiognomy and phrenology, many anthropologists fixated on the skull, the brain’s shell. Measurement and comparison of skulls from different races was believed to disclose differences in brain size, taken as an explanation for disparities in intelligence that were often assumed a priori and deployed as justification for colonialism and enslavement. Global networks of craniological collection emerged in the nineteenth century, enlisting physicians, missionaries, traders, naturalists, and colonial officials to ferry grave-robbed remains to anthropological cabinets in scientific metropoles around the world. Through the activities of these individuals, cranial collections grew in Paris, London, Edinburgh, Amsterdam, Göttingen, Saint Petersburg, Stockholm, Vienna, Boston, Philadelphia, and elsewhere.

Samuel George Morton’s collection of almost 1,000 human skulls from across the world, amassed at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia between 1830 and his death in 1851, was the largest of its time. Morton, a physician and naturalist, published measurements of brain size for the skulls in this collection; his cerebral hierarchy ranked “Caucasians”—and specifically the Germanic branch—at its pinnacle and “Negroes” at its bottom. This work was a template and inspiration for later craniological research. Through the popularization and elaboration of Morton’s “American School of Ethnology” by his colleagues George Gliddon, Josiah Nott, and Louis Agassiz, Morton’s craniology has become iconic of nineteenth-century scientific racism. In the inaugural issue of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Aleš Hrdlička, the most influential early twentieth-century physical anthropologist, credited Morton as the first physical anthropologist in the United States. Later in the twentieth century, Morton was cast into the global spotlight once more, this time as a result of the writings of Stephen Jay Gould, who used Morton’s research as a vehicle for exploring unconscious racial bias in science.

Although Morton and his research program have long been the subject of scholarly interest, the skulls housed in his collection were receiving little attention by the time of their transfer to the Penn Museum in 1966. Systematic anthropological skull collecting largely ended by the early twentieth century, but these and other historic racial anatomical collections have remained in museums. Since the passage of NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) in 1990, over one hundred crania in the Morton collection have been repatriated to federally recognized Native tribes and nations in the United States, and many more are slated for return. The law does not require the museum to repatriate the majority of the collection, and crania have still been actively used in research projects, teaching, and museum displays in recent years. In 2010, as a student, I began working at the Penn Museum to organize the database of CT scans made of all the skulls in the collection; these scans have since been used in numerous anatomical and anthropological research projects. The skull of an enslaved person was on display in the museum’s “Imagine Africa” exhibit in the mid 2010s, and starting in 2014, many of the skulls (excepting those that fell under NAGPRA) were placed in “open storage” in specially constructed glass-fronted cabinets housed in a ground-level, windowed classroom. This classroom, “CAAM 190,” is used for a variety of anthropology and archaeology classes; it stands next to a bus stop, which meant the skulls were visible from the street.

In 2019, the Penn and Slavery Project found that the remains of over 50 individuals in the Morton Collection were documented to be those of enslaved people, thus far the largest number known in any historic anatomical collection accessioned by a museum. An undergraduate’s op-ed in Penn’s newspaper in June 2020 led to more calls across and beyond campus for action, resulting in the museum’s public decision to remove the crania from the classroom and pursue further action.

At the time of writing, the Penn Museum is evaluating the “next steps towards repatriation or reburial of the crania of enslaved individuals within this Collection,” but has not committed to the repatriation or reburial of the other remains in the collection, including those from other Indigenous, colonized, and marginalized people.[2] The fate of these, and the tens of thousands of similar remains gathered in the service of anthropological race science and dispersed to hundreds of institutions across the world, remains uncertain. The History of Anthropology Review presents this series of Participant Observations as an invitation to revisit anthropological pasts in order to envision and secure ethical futures for collections of human remains.

Read the series.


[1] Assistance from Jenn Fraser, Adrianna Link, Sarah Pickman, Brigid Prial, and Simon Torracinta of the History of Anthropology Review News editorial team was essential to making this Participant Observations series possible.

[2] Penn Museum, “Update on the Morton Collection” (2020).

Suggestions for further reading:

Berry, Daina Ramey. 2017. The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation. Boston: Beacon Press.

Bieder, Robert. 1986. Science Encounters the Indian, 1820-1880: The Early Years of American Ethnology. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Geller, Pamella. 2020. “Building Nation, Becoming Object: The Bio-Politics of the Samuel G. Morton Crania Collection.” Historical Archaeology 54:52-70.

Gould, Stephen Jay. 1981. The Mismeasure of Man. New York: W.W. Norton.

Fabian, Ann. 2010. The Skull Collectors: Race, Science, and America’s Unburied Dead. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kakaliouras, Ann. 2021. “The Ancestors Should Go Home: Bioanthropology, Collaboration, and Repatriation in the Twenty-First Century.” In Chelsea H. Meloche, Laure Spake, Katherine L. Nichols, eds. Working with and for Ancestors : Collaboration in the Care and Study of Ancestral Remains. New York: Routledge. pp. 281-293.

Mitchell, Paul Wolff. 2018. “The Fault in His Seeds: Lost Notes to the Case of Bias in Samuel George Morton’s Cranial Race Science.” PLoS Biology 16(10): e2007008.

Poskett, James. 2019. Materials of the Mind: Phrenology, Race, and the Global History of Science, 1815-1920. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Redman, Samuel. 2016. Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Roque, Ricardo. 2010. Headhunting and Colonialism: Anthropology and the Circulation of Human Skulls in the Portuguese Empire, 1870-1930. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Stanton, William. 1960. The Leopard’s Spots: Scientific Attitudes Toward Race in America, 1815-59. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Turnbull, Paul. 2017. Science, Museums and Collecting the Indigenous Dead in Colonial Australia. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave MacMillan.

Watkins, Rachel. 2020. “An Alter(ed)native Perspective on Historical Bioarchaeology.” Historical Archaeology 53: 17-33.

Paul Wolff Mitchell: contributions / website / paulmit@sas.upenn.edu

1 Comment

  1. This is a very useful (and moving) series of essays. I can see that it would be quite effective in teaching, in many courses. A relevant (I hope) digression: I happen to be writing (with a co-author) a book on the iconography of U.S. postage stamps in relationship to citizenship and circulation. The postal system is all about circulation. From 1847 to the present, the cast of characters featured on US stamps grew: from white men, to … various kinds of citizens understood to be “diverse.” In a sense, the circulation of their images on postage stamps mirrored their increased ability to circulate throughout society (the way the iconography worked and works also mirrors the way their circulation continues to be impeded, compared to the possibilities for white men). When one thinks about persons circulating in society, one comes to focus at some point on the circulation of dead persons. (For example, the US mail will not move dead bodies, but you can mail cremated remains.) Thinking about the circulation of dead bodies led us to Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering (2008), which is about the massive problem of finding, identifying, transporting and burying the Civil War dead. To compare the respect paid to the burial of traitors to the lack of respect paid to the corpses of the peoples you are discussing might be quite revealing … And if you’re curious, Laura Goldblatt and Richard Handler, Toward a New National Iconography: Native Americans on United States Postage Stamps, 1847-1922. Winterthur Portfolio 51:51-79 (2017). Just the tip of the iceberg.

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