Penn Museum apologizes for ‘unethical possession of human remains’: NPR
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Dr Samuel Morton collected skulls, over 900 of them. He was a scientist in Philadelphia in the early 1800s. Morton has claimed that his studies of skulls make a case for white supremacy. He is now considered the father of scientific racism and his work is no longer accepted. But his collection of skulls remains in the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology. From member station WHYY, Peter Crimmins reports that the Penn Museum is trying to bring them back to their place.
PETER CRIMMINS, BYLINE: Dr Samuel Morton was measuring the cranial cavity of skulls, the part where the brain is located, by filling them with peppercorns, then taking the seeds and measuring their volume. He believed that a larger cranial cavity indicated greater intelligence and wrote in his 1839 book “Crania Americana” that whites were superior to other races.
Today, brain size is not considered evidence of superior intelligence, and Morton’s racist conclusions are not accepted by the scientific community. The problem is how Morton acquired the skulls, mostly from grave robbers. Paul Wolff Mitchell, a PhD candidate in anthropology at Penn, said about a dozen were said to have been dug in a pottery field in Philadelphia, where poor African Americans were buried. More than 50 others were exhumed from an African slave cemetery in Cuba.
PAUL WOLFF MITCHELL: It wasn’t just – not by consensus. They were, in many cases, violently acquired, burgled, recovered on the battlefields, taken from gallows across the world.
CRIMMINS: When activist Abdul-Aliy Muhammad learned of the collection’s existence two years ago, he felt it in his own bones.
ABDUL-ALIY MUHAMMAD: My body was hot. My heart was pounding. I was really angry, really angry to know this information.
CRIMMINS: Muhammad and Mitchell request that the skulls be repatriated from the Penn Museum, which has held them since the 1960s. As one of the largest collections of historic human skulls in America, the Morton Collection has been used by modern scholars to study more benign things, such as the effects of diet and disease on anatomy. Until last year, the collection was on display in an anthropology room. Museum director Christopher Woods said after the skulls were removed from view last summer, a committee was formed to resolve the issue with the Morton collection.
CHRISTOPHER WOODS: It was sparked by everything that was going on in the country in 2020 – the murder of George Floyd, the rise of Black Lives Matter.
CRIMMINS: Last week, after eight months of internal discussions, the Penn Museum publicly apologized for the unethical possession of Morton’s skulls and presented a plan to repatriate them, using the Native American Graves as a model. and Repatriation Act. But unlike Native American remains, often associated with a known tribe, these skulls are cut off from their own history. Take the example of a skull of an African slave in Cuba. The rest of the skeleton is still buried in Cuba. But while this person was alive, he was stolen from Africa, so where does the skull go?
WOODS: Each case is an individual case – isn’t it? – which has its own context, its own complications. But, you know, it’s so important that this work is done as carefully as possible and that we really understand what the downline communities want.
CRIMMINS: Woods forms a new committee at the Penn Museum that will identify and consult with communities that can claim a skull. Some activists say the plan does not go far enough, requiring community members not only to be consulted, but to sit on the committee and have a direct voice on how to lay these bones with dignity.
For NPR News, I’m Peter Crimmins.
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