This essay is the last 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.
I am writing as someone who sits in one of the oldest anthropology departments in the United States, which sits in one of the oldest ethnographic museums in the country, and the world. Our department played a key role in the elaboration of scientific racism in the 19th century, as scholars applied the insights of Darwinian evolutionary theory to develop racist ideas about human origins and culture. Daniel Brinton, for example, was the first professor of anthropology at Penn. Though he was trained as a medical doctor, Brinton was hired in 1886 as a Professor of Archaeology and Linguistics, having previously held the position of Professor of Ethnology and Anthropology at the Academy of Natural Sciences. He was also the president of the American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS) during the last years of the 19th century before he died in 1899, and an avid segregationist. In 1896, while president of the AAAS, Brinton argued in Popular Science Monthly that “the black, the brown and the red races differ anatomically so much from the white…that even with equal cerebral capacity they never could rival its results by equal efforts.” Brinton publicly advocated theories of scientific racism across several scientific institutions in Philadelphia. He believed that acquired “traits” developed within particular environments were passed down from generation to generation, and this laid the basis for later proponents of the “culture of poverty” paradigm.
Carleton Coon was another Penn Professor who upheld the doctrine of segregation through his theory of polygenesis. Coon graduated with a Ph.D. in anthropology from Harvard University in 1928, and shortly after World War II ended, took a post at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was also a curator in the Penn Museum. Coon was a racial typologist who believed that human races evolved independently and at different times as the result of different environmental conditions. This placed him squarely within the legacy of Social Darwinists like Brinton. In his 1962 text, The Origin of Races, Coon argued that human’s division into five races preceded our evolution into a single species, and that whites passed from Homo erectus to Homo sapiens 200,000 years earlier than Blacks, and that this explained why sub-Saharan Africans and their descendants worldwide were so far “behind” on the evolutionary ladder. At the time this text was published, Coon was president of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. Soon thereafter, Coon resigned after refusing to censure a book written by his cousin, Delta Air Lines CEO Carleton Putnam, that advocated racial segregation.
These are the long histories that haunt efforts to transform this and other institutions, that thwart decolonizing and healing processes. The recent revelation that the remains of two of the children killed when the City of Philadelphia dropped two bombs on the MOVE compound in 1985—Tree and Delisha Africa—had been held in the Penn Museum and used for research and teaching only makes this point clearer.
When I first arrived at Penn fifteen years ago, I, too, felt the heaviness of a building where thousands of souls reside. I avoided walking through the galleries on my way to my office, especially the Africa gallery, and every day, I had to walk past the so-called “Wall of Mancestors,” the long line of portraits of (white, male) emeritus faculty on the wall outside my office, until these were finally removed. I, too, had to find ways to thrive and support students within an institution unwilling to acknowledge or confront the violence and harm undergirding its operation for over a century. I, too, have been extremely disappointed with the Museum and University’s responses to the revelation about the remains of Tree and Delicia Africa. I have wished that the administration would have immediately issued a public announcement that signaled a recognition of harm and wrong-doing, and that they would have immediately contacted the family to share information and to learn their wishes. That these things didn’t happen shows that the Penn Museum, alongside other ethnographic museums worldwide, still acts as a space of enclosure.
I recently attended a gathering organized by Mabel O. Wilson, my friend, colleague and co-conspirator in the Practicing Refusal Collective, a Black feminist forum of artists and scholars dedicated to initiating dialogues on Blackness, anti-Black violence, and Black futurity in the 21st century. As a way of introducing the gathering, Wilson argued that enclosure doesn’t merely refer to the material conditions of the “hold”—whether this hold be a slave ship, a plantation, a garrison or “ghetto” community, a prison, a map, or a museum. Enclosure also encompasses the spatial, temporal, and psychic forms of restriction that confine our existence and our imagination. Moreover, it legitimates various forms of extraction, the logics of which support both the colonizing impetus (what Wilson referred to as “mine-ing”), and the co-optation of the decolonizing efforts of Black and Indigenous scholars and artists seeking to explode the boundaries of enclosure.
It is the Penn Museum’s intention, I know, to hire a BIPOC bio-archaeologist or biological anthropologist to assist with research relevant to the repatriation of the Morton Collection (and I imagine this would extend to the many others living in the Museum), and to hire someone to develop an inventory of the physical anthropology collection. The university has also commissioned a law firm to conduct an investigation regarding how the remains of Tree and Delicia Africa came into the Museum, and how they came to stay at the Museum for so long. These are important measures, but there are questions that remain unanswered:
Who, within the Museum, knew that the remains of Delicia and Tree Africa were kept there?
Why has there been such limited oversight of, and transparency, regarding the physical anthropology section of the Penn Museum?
Why has the institution chosen to take a juridical approach to the issues that have arisen, one that does not include the Africa family, or take their wishes into account?
In what ways will those who have made these decisions be held accountable for them?
The ethics codes of the American Anthropological Association, the American Association of Biological Anthropologists, and the American Alliance of Museums all demonstrate the distance between what has been and what should be done regarding an accounting for and response to the mishandling of the remains of these teenage girls.
As an anthropologist who has been committed to using my research and my creative work to bear witness, not only to the forms of racism and violence that permeate our lives, but also to the extraordinary ways we continue to make life in the face of this violence, I believe anthropology should get out of the body business. The filming of Tree Africa’s remains for an “Adventure in Forensic Anthropology” course, with the Morton Collection in the background of the scene, manifests the enduring violence of human remains collecting. There is no potential future scientific insight that can sufficiently justify the maintenance of human remains collections; there is no research (beyond that which is geared toward repatriation, or that which is descendent-community led) that can satisfactorily transform the white supremacist rationale that originally legitimated grave-robbing and the experimentation on Black and Indigenous bodies. Most importantly, there is no context in which the individuals currently housed in ethnographic museums could have given informed consent to be there.
We need greater transparency regarding physical anthropology collections at the Penn Museum, and worldwide; we need stronger policies related to research and repatriation of human remains; and we need a will toward accountability that is about people rather than property. It will be impossible for the Museum to develop relations of trust with the “community”—and after all, aren’t we also the community?—either within Philadelphia, or with the broader set of folk internationally thinking through similar issues of response and decolonizing, without taking a more proactive, repair-oriented, and humble approach to relationship-building. And with regard to this particular situation, we need to center the demands and desires of the Africa family and the MOVE organization, for it is their girls who were held in this enclosure.
A 21st century anthropology must be informed by and grounded within a feminist and BIPOC theoretical framework. Students and faculty must read this work, and must learn about and intentionally engage these histories of violence, and museums must also publicly contend with these histories. For me, this is not merely about “diversity and inclusion,” but is about transforming the space of the museum, and of the field generally, from the ground up. This requires not only curricular change, but also public and transparent interrogation of the afterlives and current lives of scientific racism in our departments and museums.
 Brinton 1896, in Lee D. Baker, From Savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of Race, 1896-1954 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 27.
 Peter Sachs Collopy, “Race Relationships: Collegiality and Demarcation in Physical Anthropology,” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 51.3 (2015): 237-260.
Deborah Thomas: contributions / website / Deborah.Thomas@sas.upenn.edu / R. Jean Brownlee Professor of Anthropology; Director, Center for Experimental Ethnography, University of Pennsylvania
May 18, 2021 at 9:03 pm
Thank you for this focused historical account and call for comprehensive transformation. Thanks also for the haunting/infuriating image of a “Wall of Mancestors” right outside your office for years: with unnamed ancestors in pieces elsewhere in the building, that oppressive image is unforgettable.
December 6, 2022 at 5:37 pm
As a Penn alumnus who used to feel similarly uncomfortable walking by those exhibits, I want to thank you for this wonderful commentary.