The Morton Cranial Collection, compiled by 19th-century physician-anatomist Samuel George ort Morton, is one of the more complex properties of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology.
Consisting of about 1,300 skulls gathered around the world, it formed the basis of Morton’s influential racist theories of racial intelligence, which helped establish the now-discredited “race science” that contributed to the eugenics of the 20th century. In recent years, part of the collection has been clearly displayed in the museum classroom, a lesson in the mysterious subject of the infamous chapter in the history of science.
Last summer, after student activists stressed the fact that about 50 skulls had arrived from enslaved Africans in Cuba, the museum moved the displayed skulls to storage along with the rest of the collection. And last week, shortly after the publication of an external study showing that about 14 other skulls had come from Philadelphia towns taken from the graves of the poor, the museum announced that the entire collection would be opened for potential “ancestral repatriation or reburial” as a step. : in the direction of “restoring the atonement” of the racist-colonial practice of the past.
The announcement was the latest development in a highly strained conversation about African-American remains in museum collections, especially of the enslaved. In January, the president of Harvard University sent a letter to alumni affiliates acknowledging that his collections included the remains of 22,000 people of 15 African descent who may have been enslaved in the United States and pledged to reconsider an “ethical economy.”
And now that conversation can explode. In recent weeks, the Smithsonian Institution, which houses the nation’s largest collection of human remains at the National Museum of Natural History, has been debating a proposed statement on its own African-American remains.
The discussions, according to an internal summary by The New York Times, included people who have long prioritized repatriation efforts, such as those more traditional about collecting, preserving, studying the museum, and viewing repatriation as a science. possible losses.
In an interview last week, Smithsonian’s secretary Lonnie G. Banch III refused to describe the discussions, but confirmed that the museum is developing a new guide, which, according to him, will be stimulated by a clear imperative. “Respect and remember.”
“Slavery is in many ways the last major not mentioned in American discourse,” he said. “Everything we can do to help the public understand the impact of slavery, to find ways to honor slavery, is at the top of my list.”
According to Dr. Bunker, any new policy will be based on existing programs for the remnants of Native Americans. This could include not only returning the remains to direct generations, but possibly communities, or even reburial in African-American national cemeteries. According to him, the museum will try to tell more complete stories about the people who remained in the collection.
“In the past, that scholarship was won as a community,” he said. “Now we are talking about finding the right tension between the community and the scholarships.”
The number of slaves և other African-American remains in museums may be small compared to the 500,000 remains of Native Americans in American collections collected from cemeteries և from 19th-century battlefields to those of Samuel Red. Redman, Associate Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, called “Industrial Scale”.
But Dr. Redman, author of The Bones Rooms, a museum collection, says the steps taken by Harvard, Penny, and especially Smithsonian, could be “historic.”
“It brings a shocking relief to our need to address the issue of historical exploitation of people of color in the process of assembling their objects, stories and bodies,” he said.
Complications of African American remnants. Who can claim them? How do you determine the status of slavery? – They are huge. Even just counting them is a challenge. According to an unpublished Smithsonian internal survey, the 33,000 remains in its warehouses contain the remains of approximately 1,700 African-Americans, including several hundred who were born before 1865 and may have been enslaved.
Some remains come from archeological excavations. But the majority are individuals who died in state-funded institutions for the poor, whose unsolicited bodies ended up in anatomical collections later acquired by the Smithsonian.
In addition to the Native American Cemetery Protection and Repatriation Act 1990 The law, which requires museums to return remnants to tribes or linear descendants who apply to them, allows Smithson to claim the remnants of nomads from descendants. While many African-Americans have been named in anatomical collections, according to the Museum of Natural History, no one has ever returned.
Museum director Kirk John Onson said that the anatomical collections, although disproportionately collected from the poor to the marginalized, included the intersection of society in terms of age, sex, race, ethnicity, and cause of death, which made them extremely useful. for forensic anthropologists և other researchers.
But when it comes to African-American remnants, a broader approach to repatriation, including the broader notion of “ancestor” or “descendant,” may be justified.
“We have all had a more enlightened season with structural racism, the antithesis of racism,” he said. “At the end of the day,” he added, “it is a matter of respect.”
Dr. Banch, Smithsonian’s first secretary of state, said he hoped his actions would set an example for institutions across the country. Some who have studied the trade history of the SS say that such guidance is urgently needed.
“It would be great to have a repatriation law for African-American cemeteries,” said Dina Rami Berry, a professor of history at the University of Texas-Commercialization, The Book of Their Pound Price. from the birth of enslaved bodies to death.
“We are finding evidence of enslaved corpses being used throughout medical schools,” he said. “Some are still on display at universities. They must be returned. “
Penn’s Morton collection vividly embodies both the downside of the enterprise and the changing meanings of the collections.
Successful Dr. Morton, an active member of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, has sometimes been called the founder of American Physical Anthropology. He advocated the theory of polygenesis, which argued that some races were separate species with separate origins. In books such as the illustrated Crania Americana from 1839, he drew skull measurements to illustrate the proposed hierarchy of human intelligence. Above were the Europeans and below were the Africans in the United States.
The Morton Skull Collection was said to be the first scientific anatomical collection in the United States և then the largest. But after his death in 1851, it disappeared, even as his racist views on intelligence controversy persisted.
In 1966, the collection was transferred to the Penn Museum from the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences. And it quickly became a useful tool for all kinds of scientific research, including research to disprove the racist ideas he helped create.
Archaeologist Stephen Aye Gould, in a famous 1978 paper (later adapted for his book The Wrong Man Step), argued that Morton’s racist assumptions had led him to make erroneous measurements, making Morton not just a symbol of racist ideas. but how bias can affect the seemingly objective procedures of science.
Gould’s analysis of Morton’s measurements is in itself controversial. But in recent years, the appropriateness of having skulls in general has been sharply questioned by local իստ university activists, especially after student researchers on the Penn & Slavery Project drew attention to the remains of enslaved Cubans.
Christopher Woods, who became the museum’s director earlier this month, said the new repatriation policy (recommended by the commission) would not change the collection’s status as an active source of research.
Although no real skulls have been available since last summer, forensic researchers can examine the third scan of the entire collection, including 126 Native Americans who have already returned home.
“The collection was created in the 19th century for insidious purposes to reinforce white racial views, but good research has been done on this collection,” said Dr. Woods.
When it comes to repatriation, he said, the moral imperative is clear, even if the specific course of action may not be. For the Philadelphia skulls taken from the graves of the poor (the main source of bodyguards for all races at the time), he hoped they could be reburied in local African-American cemeteries.
However, the remains of slaves from Cuba will require further research, possibly experiments, such as the search for a suitable repatriation site, possibly in Cuba or West Africa, where large numbers of individuals were born.
He said that the remnants of the CC could become a particularly urgent issue. But repatriation requests for any skull will be considered.
“This is an ethical issue,” he said. “We have to take into account the wishes of the communities where these people came from.”