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.
When “Police Free Penn: An Abolitionist Assembly,” a coalition of staff, faculty, and students at the University of Pennsylvania, called for the Morton Collection to be abolished, I was struck, yet again, by the inevitable resonance of the past in the present—if I may be so cliché. The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, my hometown, spurred Police Free Penn into action, and they included in their central goals the “redress [of] the legacy of racism, colonialism, and slavery on campus.” Since this summer, some of the skulls from the Morton Collection that were previously stored in a classroom behind glass have now been removed from anyone’s view. Similarly, early in this Black History Month (February 2021), a public Facebook post telling the story of “The Man Fortune,” has been making the rounds in a few anthropology and archaeology groups. Fortune, a husband, father, and slave in Connecticut, died accidentally in 1798, and his body was cut up and used as an anatomical specimen and then a museum display. Work by a coalition composed of the Mattatuck Museum’s African American History Project Committee, the NAACP, and Howard University culminated in his lying in state at the Connecticut capitol and his burial in a Waterbury cemetery in 2013. I hope the small acts of redress represented by Police Free Penn’s activism (along with that of other groups on and beyond Penn’s campus) and Fortune’s laying to rest may lead to a similar fate of repatriation and (re)burial for the entirety of the Morton Collection.
In order for that to happen, though, we must think about repatriation, reburial, and “collections” differently.
First, for the last thirty years, repatriation in the U.S. has been largely bound to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Indigenous ancestors are claimed by federally recognized tribes and nations, who must establish an historical, cultural, or archaeological link to the particular ancestors eligible for repatriation. Repatriation under NAGPRA has been enriching for all involved in some cases, and contentious and fractious in others. Thousands of Indigenous ancestors, however—mainly those who are not currently affiliated with a tribe or nation—remain on institutional shelves.
Certainly repatriations and reburials have also occurred outside the legal confines of federal law, which currently only applies to Indigenous peoples. One significant example is the African Burial Ground in New York City, where excavation and study of over 400 African-American ancestors led not only to reburial and a national monument, but to an important corpus of scholarly work on African and African-descent life and death in North America. Additionally, reburial has occurred innumerable times in the U.S.—when cemeteries are relocated, or damaged by flooding, or when unmarked historic burials are excavated and then re-interred.
Nevertheless, we must rethink repatriation in order to achieve redress or justice in a case like the Morton Collection, and surely in other instances when the dead deserve burial, or reburial. This “collection” does not represent an archaeologically, culturally, or anatomically consistent population. It is made up entirely of skulls (crania) gifted to or purchased by Samuel G. Morton in the early to mid-nineteenth century, and used for his racist classifications. Along with skulls from archaeological sites in Peru and Egypt are also recently dead people who suffered violent and disturbing fates. Some were executed, confined to insane asylums, dead too young from substance abuse, killed in an uprising, or “freed” from a life in slavery onto Morton’s shelves. The Morton Collection does not have a single “descendant community,” or a group of living people who can claim them as their ancestors.
Rather, the descendant community of the Morton Collection can be said to be all those whose ancestors suffered under Western colonialism, “specimen” collecting practices, and the brutality of life in the industrializing United States and elsewhere. The one thing the people in the collection had in common was their or their community’s disempowerment. The ability to control what happens to you after you die, or—for example—whether the cemetery in which you are interred is marked and/or preserved, is a distinct privilege. Whatever the scientific value of the collection is, or could be, it is literally a series of trophy heads. The winners—European and European-American scientists—made it their practice to collect the remains of people who could not protect themselves, or their family, or their community, from this harm. It is our own lingering sense of entitlement, and a lack of imagination, that prevents us from repatriating or (re)burying these ancestors.
The Penn Museum has already repatriated ancestors from the Morton Collection, but only under NAGPRA. I hope they and other museums around the country will revise their current repatriation practices for something more capacious, and more just.
 Some scholars in anthropology and archaeology use the term “ancestors” to discuss human skeletal remains, out of respect for contemporary Indigenous communities. Ancestor(s) replaces Western terms such as specimens, skeletons, collections, and remains, which reduce ancestors to objects.
 For a deeper dive into the archaeology and bioarchaeology of the African Burial Ground, please see The New York African Burial Ground Skeletal Biology Final Report Series.
 Not to mention that repatriation and (re)burial is an important part of U.S. military culture and procedure, where the remains of fallen servicepeople are identified and returned to their families. For an example, please see here.
 Morton’s work and life are well captured in Ann Fabian’s 2010 book, The Skull Collectors: Race, Science and America’s Unburied Dead, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
 The link points to the CT scan and information database for the entire Morton Collection. Once at the link, one can browse through the Collection for often detailed accounts of the lives and deaths of people whose heads now make it up. One can enter the following numbers on the top search bar to learn about some of these people: 33, 42, 49, 62, 63, 69, 70, 80, 84, 201, 509, 535.