The University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Museum holds approximately 1,000 crania, some of which belonged to enslaved people. After facing pressure from student groups, the museum announced that it will remove the collection from public view.
The crania collection was amassed by Samuel George Morton, who graduated from Perelman School of Medicine in 1820. Morton studied human skulls in order to advance racist ideas of European superiority and innate hierarchy among people of different races. A portion of the Morton Crania Collection is currently on display in a Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials classroom within the museum.
Student groups have criticized the museum for keeping the collection for many years. At a 2019 symposium, the Penn and Slavery Project presented research showing that fifty-five of the skulls belonged to enslaved people in Cuba and America. Most recently, Police Free Penn, a group calling for the university to abolish policing on campus, campaigned to abolish the collection. While the museum has responded to the pressure and agreed to remove the crania display, students argue that this is just the first step of addressing the museum’s complicity in systemic racism.
Students are also calling for the museum to begin repatriating the crania and to commit to restorative methodologies to address the impact of scientific racism. Paul Mitchell, School of Arts and Sciences Ph.D. fifth-year student, described the complexity and importance of repatriation for the Daily Pennsylvanian.
“Just as these remains were transformed into objects through their collection, they must now be uncollected, [and] recognized as persons. Approaching this ethical challenge is as complex as it is crucial,” Mitchell said. “It’s important to note that many of these remains are traced back to people in descendant communities who would not want their kin on a shelf in the museum.”
According to the Penn Museum’s website, the museum is now working towards repatriation or reburial of the crania.