Compiled by 19th century physician and anatomist Samuel George Morton, the Morton Cranial Collection is one of the more intricate holdings in the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archeology and Anthropology.
Consisting of roughly 1,300 skulls collected around the world, it formed the basis of Morton's influential racist theories about differences in intelligence between races that helped establish the now discredited "racial science" that led to the eugenics of the 20th century Century contributed. In recent years, part of the collection has been featured prominently in a museum classroom, a spooky object lesson in an infamous chapter in the history of science.
After student activists highlighted the fact last summer that around 50 skulls were from enslaved Africans in Cuba, the museum put the displayed skulls in storage with the rest of the collection. And last week, shortly after outside research was published showing that approximately 14 more skulls were from black Philadelphians who were found in poor graves, the museum announced that the entire collection would be used as a move towards a possible “repatriation or burial of ancestors “should be opened in the direction of“ atonement and repair ”for earlier racist and colonialist practices.
The announcement was the latest in a highly charged conversation about African American remains in museum collections, especially the enslaved ones. In January, the President of Harvard University issued a letter to alumni and affiliates confirming that there were 22,000 human remains in the collections, 15 from people of African descent who may have been enslaved in the United States and pledged to uphold his policy of "Ethics" to review stewardship. "
And now this conversation can explode. In the past few weeks, the Smithsonian Institution, whose National Natural History Museum houses the largest collection of human remains in the country, has been debating a proposed declaration on its own African American remains.
Those discussions, according to parts of an internal New York Times summary, involved people who have long prioritized the return effort, as well as people more traditional of the museum's mission to collect, preserve and investigate artifacts, and who consider returns consider potential losses to science.
In an interview last week, Smithsonian secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III declined to characterize the deliberations, but acknowledged that the museum is developing new guidelines backed by a clear commandment: "honor and remember."
"Slavery is, in many ways, the last major mention in American discourse," he said. "Anything we can do to help the public understand the implications of slavery and find ways to honor the enslaved is high on my list."
Any new policy, said Dr. Bunch, would build on existing Native American remains programs. It could include returning remains to direct descendants, potentially to communities, or even burial at a national African American burial site. And the museum, he said, would also endeavor to tell fuller stories of people whose remains remain in the collection.
"It used to be that the scholarship trumped the community," he said. "Now it's a matter of finding the right tension between community and science."
The amount of enslaved and other African American remains in museums may be modest compared to the estimated 500,000 Native American remains in U.S. collections found on the grounds of Samuel J. Redman, an associate professor of, from nineteenth-century burial sites and battlefields History at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, referred to as "industrial scale".
Dr. However, Redman, the author of "Bone Rooms," a story of remains collected by museums, said the moves of Harvard, Penn, and the Smithsonian in particular, could mark a "historic turning point".
"It is a shocking relief that we have to deal with the historical exploitation of colored people in collecting their objects, their stories and their bodies," he said.
The complexity surrounding African Americans remains – who could claim it? How do you determine enslaved status? – are enormous. Just counting is a challenge. According to an internal Smithsonian survey that has not yet been published, the storerooms contain 33,000 remains of approximately 1,700 African Americans, including an estimated several hundred who were born before 1865 and may have been enslaved.
Some remains come from archaeological excavations. The majority, however, come from individuals who died in government-funded facilities for the poor and whose unclaimed bodies ended up in anatomical collections that were later acquired by Smithsonian.
In addition to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 requiring museums to return remains to tribes or direct descendants who request them, the Smithsonian allows descendants of named individuals of any race of descendants to be claimed. While many African American individuals are named in the anatomical collections, none have ever been reclaimed, according to the Natural History Museum.
Kirk Johnson, the museum's director, said the anatomical collections, while disproportionately gathered from the poor and marginalized, encompassed a cross section of society in terms of age, gender, race, ethnicity, and cause of death, which made them extremely useful had for forensic anthropologists and other researchers.
But when it comes to African American remains, a broader approach to repatriation – including a broader notion of "ancestors" and "descendants" – may be warranted.
"We have all had a time when we were more educated about structural racism and racism against blacks," he said. "At the end of the day," he added, "it's a matter of respect."
Dr. Bunch, the Smithsonian's first black secretary, said he hoped his actions would set a model for institutions across the country. Some who have studied the history of the blackbody trade say that such guidance is badly needed.
"It would be wonderful to have African American graves protection and repatriation law," said Daina Ramey Berry, professor of history at the University of Texas and author of "The Price of Her Pound of Meat," a study of the marketing of enslaved bodies from birth to death.
"We are finding evidence of enslaved bodies being used in medical schools across the country," she said. “Some are still on display at universities. They need to be returned. "
Penn's Morton collection vividly embodies both the dirty side of the company and the way collections change meanings.
Morton, a successful physician who was an active member of the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences, has sometimes been referred to as the founder of American physical anthropology. He was a proponent of the theory of polygenesis, according to which some races were separate species with different origins. In books such as the richly illustrated Crania Americana of 1839, he relied on skull measurements to outline a proposed hierarchy of human intelligence, with Europeans at the top and Africans in the United States at the bottom.
Morton's skull collection is believed to have been the first scientific anatomical collection in the United States and the largest at the time. But it was forgotten after his death in 1851, although his racist ideas about differences in intelligence continued to be influential.
In 1966 the collection was moved from the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences to the Penn Museum. And it quickly became a useful tool for all kinds of scientific research – including studies aimed at debunking the racist ideas that created it.
In a famous 1978 article (which was later adapted for his book "The Mismeasure of Man"), paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould argued that Morton's racial assumptions led him to take wrong measurements – and Morton to not just one Symbol of racist ideas, but also how bias can affect the seemingly objective processes of science.
Gould's analysis of Morton's measurements is itself hotly contested. In recent years, the adequacy of owning the skulls in the first place has been sharply questioned by campus and local activists, particularly after student researchers associated with the Penn & Slavery project became aware of the remains of the enslaved Cubans had.
Christopher Woods, who became the museum's director earlier this month, said the new return policy (recommended by a committee) would not change the collection's status as an active research source.
Although access to the actual skulls has not been available since last summer, legitimate researchers can examine 3D scans of the entire collection, including those of 126 Indians who have already been repatriated.
"The collection was put together for nefarious purposes in the 19th century to reinforce the racist views of the white supremacists, but good research has still been done on the collection," said Dr. Woods.
When it comes to repatriation, the moral imperative is clear, even if the specific course of action may not be the case. For the skulls of the black Philadelphians that came from the graves of the poor (a major source of corpses of all races at the time), he said the hope is that they can be reburied in a local African American cemetery.
However, the enslaved remains from Cuba would require future research and possibly testing, as well as finding a suitable repatriation site, possibly in Cuba or West Africa, where most people are likely to have been born.
The black remains could have become a particularly pressing problem, he said. However, return requests for skulls would be considered.
"This is an ethical issue," he said. "We have to take into account the wishes of the communities from which these people come."