Penn Museum Moves to Bury Skulls of Enslaved People

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum) is petitioning the Philadelphia Orphans’ Court for permission to bury thirteen skulls at the city’s historically Black Eden Cemetery. The remains arrived to the museum in 1966 as part of the collection of nineteenth-century physician Samuel George Morton, whose racist theories regarding intellect profoundly influenced twentieth-century eugenics. The skulls—which were most likely excavated from unmarked graves beneath the Blocksley Almshouse, a charity hospital that once stood on the grounds now occupied by the Penn Museum—are believed to have belonged to enslaved Philadelphians.

“It’s a really important moment to do the right thing and acknowledge the problematic history of parts of this collection,” Penn Museum director Christopher Woods told the New York Times. “These individuals were collected under absolutely terrible circumstances—Morton preyed upon the most vulnerable and weakest of society. These individuals should be laid to rest.”

Not everyone agrees that museum officials should determine the skulls’ fate. Community organizer Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, who served on the Penn Museum advisory committee charged with deciding the future of the remains, has filed a formal objection to the plan with the Orphans’ Court, arguing that descendent communities should have care of the skulls. “Penn’s role is to give us resources, and that’s it to bear witness to that process but not be a part of it,” Muhammad told the Times. “They should not be the ones who decide how a healing process happens. That’s simple oppression mathematics.”

The museum’s efforts to properly inter the bones reflect a global reexamination of the ways in which institutions treat human remains—many of which belong to unidentified Indigenous people displaced by colonizers or enslaved people abused by same, and whose presence in museums continues to reify imperialization. In the United States, scientists and African American communities have proposed legislation mirroring the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, which requires museums to return remains in their collection to tribes or descendants who ask for them.


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