Penn Museum Pledges to Repatriate Skulls

After a recent protest demanding that the Penn Museum repatriate skulls from its Morton Collection, the museum has issued a an apology and a plan to pursue repatriation.

Dr. Samuel Morton assembled the Morton Collection of skulls in the nineteenth century in order to perpetuate a “scientific” basis for white supremacy. Many of the skulls were acquired illegally. Fifty-one came from enslaved Africans in Cuba, and many are believed to have come from the remains of Black Philadelphians and purchased from grave robbers.

On April 8, Police Free Penn organized a rally pressuring the museum to repatriate the skulls. The museum had responded to earlier calls for action by removing the collection from classroom instruction and putting it in storage. Protesters, however, argued that the collection should no longer be studied and that the remains need to be returned to their original communities.

On April 12, the Penn Museum released its repatriation plan. The museum has created a new committee that includes members from Penn’s offices of Social Equity and Community, Government and Community Affairs, the University Chaplain, General Counsel, and others to explore options for reburial in a historically Black Philadelphia cemetery. In the plan the museum also pledges to include community consultation at every stage. However, activists worry that the repatriation committee will not include community members. Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, a co-founder of the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative, told WHYY, “There’s a commitment to a conversation with community, but we want a commitment to have the community on this committee, and not just Penn people. Right now, as it stands, [it] is only Penn staff.”

Director of the Penn Museum Dr. Christopher Woods promised that the museum was committed to transparency and community involvement. “This is the era of transparency that we want to see unfold. If our goal is to repatriate these individuals, these ancestors, wherever possible, that means community involvement has to be a big part of this at every single step of the way,” Woods said.