Activists Renew Calls for Penn Museum to Repatriate Skulls of Enslaved People

Activists in Philadelphia are renewing their calls for the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania to repatriate crania in its disputed Morton Collection. The initiative follows recent revelations that the collection includes skulls of more than a dozen enslaved Black Philadelphians stolen from unmarked graves.

In July of last year, the Penn Museum announced that it would remove from view parts of the Morton Cranial Collection, which encompasses over 1,000 skulls, and relocate them to storage. The collection was amassed by Samuel George Morton, a 19th-century Philadelphia-born, UPenn-educated physician who examined hundreds of skulls to reinforce his white supremacist, pseudoscientific theory that the brains of some races are larger than others.

In 2019, a group of UPenn students formed the Penn & Slavery Project and presented a study that found that the Morton Collection includes 53 crania of enslaved individuals from Havana, Cuba, and crania of two individuals enslaved in the United States. But a new report published this February by Paul Wolff Mitchell, a doctoral candidate in anthropology and a fellow in the Penn Medicine and the Afterlives of Slavery project, revealed that the collection also includes skulls that belonged to 14 enslaved Black Philadelphians who were buried in potter’s field, an unmarked communal burial ground that belonged to a former almshouse onto which Penn Museum is currently located.

According to the report, much of Penn’s facilities are located atop the former grounds of the Philadelphia almshouse, a public hospital that served the city’s orphans, impoverished, and people with physical and mental illnesses. The almshouse is also where Penn Medicine faculty worked and trained medical students.

“Much of the price for making Philadelphia the American’ city of medicine’ in the nineteenth century was paid in cadavers,” Mitchell writes in his report. “The bodies of poor, marginalized, and Black Americans were made into the objects of nineteenth-century anatomy.”

Mitchell caveats that “holes and ambiguities” in the collection’s records make it “likely impossible” to trace the remains of enslaved Black individuals.

“The history of Blackness as object of medical and anthropological study cannot be made discrete from the history of slavery, just as Blackness and enslavement cannot be separated in accounting for the remains of Black Philadelphians in Morton’s skull collection,” the report states. “Any commitment to addressing Penn’s historical complicity in the institution of slavery must address itself to all aspects of anti-Black racism, which extends to all Black bodies in historic anatomical collections.”

Activists from Police Free Penn (PFP) and Black & Brown Workers Co-op, and members of Penn & Slavery Project, are planning to stage a protest in front of the museum tomorrow, April 8.

“We cannot wait any longer for the Museum to decide on the best course of action for ancestral remains which should never have been removed from their burial grounds in the first place,” the PFP wrote in a Facebook event post.

The activists renewed their calls on the museum to dissolve the Morton Collection, end the use of data sourced from the collection, and repatriate all of its contents: “Because of the impossibility of determining the names and identities of these ancestors, we demand their immediate release to Black descendant communities in Philadelphia, the only ones who can properly care for and honor the dead.”

Additional demands include creating a full-time staff position to work on the repatriation process of all remains and forming an advisory council “inclusive of students and members of Philadelphia’s Black/African-descendant, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian communities.”

“No museum should have the remains of formerly enslaved people,” says Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, a West Philadelphia activist who co-founded the nonprofit Black & Brown Workers Co-op, in a conversation with Hyperallergic.

“Those people deserve rest,” Muhammad adds. “They lived their lives exploited and were subjugated even in their death. There’s no legitimate argument that any museum can make for holding these stolen remains.”

Last year, the Penn Museum said that it’s “working towards repatriation or reburial” of the crania of enslaved individuals in the collection but reserved that the issue is “complicated” because “not much is known about these individuals other than that they came to Morton from Cuba.” The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the museum has since formed a committee to explore repatriation and reburial but has not provided a timeline for conclusions.

Muhammad accuses the museum of lack of transparency in its proceedings, saying that the discussions of the committee are “shrouded in mystery.”

“Penn hasn’t told us who’s on this committee and hasn’t given us a clear timeline for recommendations,” the activist says. “It’s another example of their lack of regard and respect to Black and Brown communities in Philadelphia.”

The Penn Museum has not responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment. The museum has updated its website to note that it will close early tomorrow, on the day of the protest, at 3:30pm rather than 5pm.

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