The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has announced its action plan regarding the repatriation or reburial of ancestors, including the remains of enslaved individuals and Black Philadelphians within the Samuel G. Morton Cranial collection. From the 1830s through the 1840s, this Philadelphia-based physician and anatomy lecturer Samuel G. Morton collected human crania. Morton’s research on the crania was cited by some as evidence that Europeans, especially those of German and English ancestry, were intellectually, morally, and physically superior to all other races.
After Morton’s death in 1851, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia purchased and expanded the collection. The collection was moved from the Drexel Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia to the Penn Museum in 1966. Today, the Morton Collection consists of over 1,300 crania. The crania come from all parts of the world and range in date from ancient Egyptian times to the 19th century.
“The Penn Museum and the University of Pennsylvania apologize for the unethical possession of human remains in the Morton Collection.” said Christopher Woods, the director of the Penn Museum. “It is time for these individuals to be returned to their ancestral communities, wherever possible, as a step toward atonement and repair for the racist and colonial practices that were integral to the formation of these collections.”
“There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to handling repatriation and reburial in any circumstance.” Woods continued. “Each case is unique and deserves its own consideration. This is incredibly sensitive work. And while we all desire to see the remains of these individuals reunited with their ancestral communities as quickly as possible, it is essential not to rush but to proceed with the utmost care and diligence. As we confront a legacy of racism and colonialism, it is our moral imperative to do so.”