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.
In both 2006 and 2016, the University of Pennsylvania released statements denying any connections to the institution of slavery. Since 2017, The Penn and Slavery Project (P&SP) has repeatedly challenged and disproven that claim, revealing the many ways in which “America’s first university” benefitted from and contributed to the institution. But that denial is not unique to Penn; it reflects the tendency to value optics over functions, the idea of focusing on the way things look instead of the way things work. That’s a U.S. tradition. In the U.S., we release statements, circulate textbooks, and wave flags that paper over histories that make us uncomfortable. We have statues that elevate some historical figures and cast others in shadow.
The P&SP’s Augmented Reality App, launched in February 2020, challenges that practice by illustrating the way the institutions like Penn operate(d), and furthers that resistance through encouraging engagement. The app guides users on a tour through six Augmented Reality (AR) exhibits to illustrate Penn’s historical complicity in slavery. The pandemic and accessibility concerns ultimately changed the direction of the project; users can now access the AR experiences even if they are not on Penn’s campus and without an affiliation to Penn.
The app’s recent launch event fostered a celebratory tone, and there is certainly cause for celebration. The AR app offers a creative means to present collaborative student research, while the innovative nature of augmented reality provides a source of entertainment. AR technology will no doubt continue to develop and occupy more space in academic institutions in the future, making it imperative for universities to think critically and responsibly about how to fold AR into secondary education. And while this app is a significant technological and pedagogical accomplishment, it is important to remember P&SP’s original goal: to compel the University of Pennsylvania to take responsibility for its complicity and connections to the institution of slavery, which it had previously denied. I was surprised by how AR could create an overlap between two concepts I had previously considered to be polar opposites: optics and functions. As we developed the app, we took deliberate steps to attach the university’s historical optics to its historical function. The final product allowed users to look at the university, and see how it worked.
The tour begins with the Caesar’s Story stop (researcher: Dillon Kersh). Caesar was enslaved by Penn’s first English professor, Ebenezer Kinnersley, who received payment for Caesar’s labor. We imagined a portrait of Ebenezer and the Kinnersleys that comes to life on the base of Benjamin Franklin’s statue. Its placement represents the ways that Penn’s founders and funders relied on the institution of slavery. The Slavery’s Science stop (researchers: Carson Eckhard, Archana Upadhyay, and Paul Wolff Mitchell) makes the history of Penn’s Samuel Morton Skull Collection available to the public. Their research led the Penn Museum to relocate the Morton Skull Collection. The AR exhibit surrounds the user in a dome featuring interactive artifacts, images, and terminology that reveal the connections between Penn medical school professors and scientific racism. The dome surrounds the user to illustrate that this history, slavery’s history, is everywhere.
The dome also emphasizes that the creation and dissemination of medical and scientific racism may be the most profound and enduring aspect of Penn’s historical complicity with slavery. Penn’s nineteenth-century medical school produced knowledge that falsely identified innate differences between Black and white bodies. Professors, instructors, and preceptors like Charles Caldwell, Samuel George Morton, and Benjamin Rush taught and perpetuated scientific racism. Morton, a graduate of Penn’s medical program and preceptor for students at the school, claimed that Black people’s skull size demonstrated that their supposed mental inferiority suited them only for servitude. After measuring hundreds of human skulls, Morton published Crania Americana (1839), Crania Aegyptiaca (1844), and other texts to advance the theories of polygenesis and craniometry. He used physical characteristics and skull size to create an intellectual hierarchy, placing white people at the top and Black people at the bottom. After Morton’s death, the collection was purchased from his widow and gifted to the Academy of Natural Sciences, which then transferred the collection to the Penn Museum in 1966.
The AR tour ends with the Generations stop and features Penn History PhD student Breanna Moore’s discovery that her ancestors were enslaved by a Penn alum. The exhibit places her family’s quilt in front of a bridge with stones displaying the names of donors, alums, and others who have contributed to Penn’s wealth. The stop illustrates the discrepancies between the wealth, education, and resources of the families of white enslavers and the families of the enslaved. The institutions that benefited from slavery, have erased the long-lasting and all-encompassing impacts of the institution far too easily.
Projects like P&SP shed light on these issues and help pressure institutions like Penn to acknowledge their history and take accountability for the way they affect the community around them. It is likely that there will be more projects that combine technology, art, activism, and history to share untold stories and fight for reparative justice. The Penn & Slavery Project is only the first step. It cannot be the last.
 Samuel George Morton. 1844. Crania Aegyptiaca; or Observations on Egyptian Ethnography Derived from Anatomy, History and the Monuments. Philadelphia: John Pennington, pp. 65-66.
VanJessica Gladney: contributions / website / firstname.lastname@example.org / VanJessica Gladney has been a member of the Penn and Slavery Project at the University of Pennsylvania since its conception in 2017. As an undergraduate, she conducted research about Penn’s connections to slavery on its original and current campuses. Her research resulted in the removal of the George Whitefield statue from the campus. After graduation, she served as the project’s Public History Fellow, presenting information about the project throughout the greater Philadelphia area and building the project’s website. As of 2019, she is a Ph.D. student in History at the University of Pennsylvania.