Museum apologizes for ‘unethical’ skull collection, vows reburial

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A museum in Philadelphia has apologized for its “unethical possession of human remains” which were once used “to justify white supremacist views” — and vowed to repatriate the widely-criticized collection, according to a report.

The remains from Penn Museum’s Morton Collection comprises 1,300 human crania, including the remains of at least a dozen anonymous black Philadelphians, collected by 19th-century doctor and white supremacist Samuel George Morton, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The macabre collection, currently in storage, was accumulated by Morton in the first half of the 19th century, who used them in his research to “justify white supremacist views,” museum officials said in a statement Monday.

The remains of the Philadelphians will be returned to local congregations or communities to be interred in a historically black cemetery, Penn officials told the outlet.

Dr. Janet Monge, museum casting project coordinator, loads a cart of cast skulls in preparation for Darwin Day at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
Dr. Janet Monge, museum casting project coordinator, loads a cart of cast skulls in preparation for Darwin Day at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
AP

In addition, the museum will also try to repatriate dozens of skulls of slaves from Cuba that are part of the collection.

The announcement follows a demonstration last week demanding that the skulls be returned to their native country, the Inquirer reported.

“The Penn Museum and the University of Pennsylvania apologize for the unethical possession of human remains in the Morton Collection,” museum director Christopher Woods said in a statement.

The Morton Collection of Human Skulls
The remains from Penn Museum’s Morton Collection comprises 1,300 human crania.
University of Pennsylvania Youtube

“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.”

The museum, which previously used the skulls for classroom instruction, will also reassess its practice of collecting, displaying and researching human remains, Woods said.

The museum established a committee last summer to study the collection and recommended in a report made public Monday that it return “ancestors to their descendants and communities of origin” where possible and to apologize for the unethically acquired remains.

Penn Museum at University of Pennsylvania
The museum has has the remains since 1966.
Alamy Stock Photo

Woods told the Inquirer he planned to act on the Philadelphia reburials “as soon as possible,” but said repatriating remains of slaves from Cuba would take longer.

“This one is going to be more complicated because, for a lot of these individuals, the records are terrible or nonexistent,” Woods said. “It’s uncertain which actually have to go back to Cuba, or probably more likely, West Africa.”

Morton, who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, once taught at Penn’s medical school, but he was primarily associated with the Academy of Natural Sciences, the Inquirer reported.

Morton amassed his cranial collection while there before dying in 1851, the newspaper reported.

The remains were later moved from the Drexel Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia to the Penn Museum in 1966 and are currently in storage in its anthropology section.

The Morton Collection of Human Skulls
The museum will reassess its practice of collecting, displaying and researching human remains.
University of Pennsylvania Youtube

A spokesperson for Police Free Penn — an activist group calling for the skulls to be returned last week — said Monday’s announcement was “definitely a great step,” but called for “real community participation” as the reburial and repatriation process begins.

Source : Museum apologizes for ‘unethical’ skull collection, vows reburial