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Penn Museum apologizes for its ‘unethical’ collection of human skulls and says it will repatriate remains of Black Philadelphians and others

The Morton collection of skulls has been the subject of sharp criticism from community and student activists who want the museum to return all human remains to their communities of origin.

Jake Nussbaum (left), a Penn grad student with Police Free Penn, and VanJessica Gladney (right) a Penn grad student with the Penn & Slavery Project, attend a rally Thursday demanding that the Penn Museum repatriate skulls held by the Morton skull collection.
Jake Nussbaum (left), a Penn grad student with Police Free Penn, and VanJessica Gladney (right) a Penn grad student with the Penn & Slavery Project, attend a rally Thursday demanding that the Penn Museum repatriate skulls held by the Morton skull collection.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Following more than a year of growing controversy and a demonstration last week, the Penn Museum apologized Monday for the “unethical possession of human remains” in its Morton skull collection and vowed repatriation and reburial of the remains of more than a dozen anonymous Black Philadelphians.

The remains will be returned to congregations or communities in Philadelphia for interment in a historically Black cemetery, as yet undetermined, according to Penn officials.

In addition, the museum said it will seek agreements with communities abroad enabling the return of dozens of skulls of enslaved individuals from Cuba that are also contained in the 1,000-skull collection, amassed by 19th century doctor and white supremacist Samuel George Morton.

Student and community activists, concerned by the presence of the remains of the enslaved and the anonymous, have pressed the museum to remove the entire collection from its holdings and work with local communities in Philadelphia and elsewhere to return and rebury all of the remains.

Monday, the museum said it would try to do so, “wherever possible.”

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

A spokesperson for Police Free Penn, an activist group that was among those demonstrating last week, called the museum decision “definitely a great step for the museum to take, and we’re happy with this commitment to return all remains” in the Morton collection.

“We want to make sure there is real community participation in this process every step of the way, not just from folks connected with the institution, and PFP will continue to uplift the demands of Black-led and Indigenous-led organizing around this issue,” said the spokesperson, who asked not to be quoted by name.

Paul Wolff Mitchell, a doctoral student in anthropology who wrote a report on the roots of the Morton collection in scientific racism, said that “the museum’s announcement is a step in the right direction, but there’s a long road ahead to documenting and dismantling the legacies of scientific racism at Penn and beyond.” Mitchell’s report is on the university website.

Woods said he would act on the Philadelphia reburials “as soon as possible” — within a matter of a week or two.

Returning the remains of those enslaved in Cuba, he said, would take more time.

“This one is going to be a bit 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.”

To address return of the Cuban remains, the museum will probably use a legal framework suggested by the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, which governs repatriation and reburial of human remains and artifacts to Indigenous people within the U.S.

“It may necessitate agreements with West African countries,” said Woods. “It may involve agreements, potentially, with Cuba. This will be a more complex process, and it promises to take longer. But what I’d like to do is set up a NAGPRA-informed infrastructure in the museum, not only to deal with the Cuban remains, but any other issues of these kinds, and we know that they’re going to arise in the future. So this will be a permanent infrastructure that we’ll build in the museum.”

The university is also planning to hire a bioanthropologist from the Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) community who is expert in the analysis of human remains and has a “track record of advocacy for Black and Indigenous matters and repatriation requests,” Woods said.

The Morton collection was amassed largely to serve its collector’s racist belief in white European supremacy, which he thought could be established by the measurement of skulls.

According to Mitchell’s report, some of the collection’s skulls of Black and white Philadelphians were taken from the burial grounds used by the Blockley Almshouse and its successor institutions, Philadelphia Hospital and Philadelphia General Hospital.

Much of Penn, including Franklin Field, lies over the old burial grounds, from which 18th and 19th century grave robbers supplied cadavers to the city’s medical schools, including Jefferson Medical College and what is now the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

Morton graduated from Penn and taught for a time at the Penn medical school. But he was mostly associated with the Academy of Natural Sciences, where he served as president for a time and worked on building his cranial collection. He died in 1851.

In 1966, the Morton Collection was transferred from the Academy to the Penn Museum.

On its website, the museum notes that last summer’s movement for racial justice “underscores the critical need for institutions like the Penn Museum to continuously examine the colonial and racist histories of their collecting practices.”

Last year, Penn established a committee to study the issues surrounding the Morton collection and make recommendations on actions to be taken.

The committee’s overriding determination, part of a report released Monday, was that “the museum should return ancestors to their descendants and communities of origin whenever possible as a step towards atoning for the racist, unethical, and colonial practices which were integral to the formation of these collections.”

Woods vowed the museum would be open in its transactions going forward.

“I want people to know what we’re doing, and when we’re going to do it,” he said. “I can’t make definite promises about when things will happen. They’ll happen as soon as they can, as long as it’s done carefully and ethically. But transparency is going to be a central pillar of this, but also community involvement, along every step of the way.”