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Free Penn lectures aim to spark conversation on race, science, and history

Skulls from the Samuel Morton Collection at the Penn Museum. Morton, a doctor who has been called the "scientific father of racism,"  believed they offered proof that whites were superior.
Skulls from the Samuel Morton Collection at the Penn Museum. Morton, a doctor who has been called the "scientific father of racism," believed they offered proof that whites were superior.Read morePenn Museum

A collection of human skulls compiled by the "scientific father of racism" nearly 200 years ago is now the springboard to a series of free lectures examining the science and history of race — and just how wrong that 19th-century doctor got it.

The first of the sessions is titled "Understanding the History of Race and Science," The programs also will be live-streamed through the museum's website and eventually will be archived there. A film crew is making a documentary based on the project.

This is the first time the museum has hosted a free, college-level series of this sort. Called the Public Classroom, the lectures are funded with a $75,000 grant from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage.

Kate Quinn, director of exhibitions and public programs for the museum, noted that with race such a major topic today, many museums and communities are finding ways to include the public in discussions.

"We're very conscious of really wanting to contribute in a way that is meaningful to this conversation," she said.

While there is a strain of antiscience sentiment in modern America, Quinn said, she expects this series to appeal to people who want to engage in "thoughtful conversation."

While the idea that whites were superior to other groups long predated Morton, he "is considered to be the scientific father of racism," Quinn said. His work, she said, helped justify slavery.

Monge said she hoped that people who attend or view the sessions will use what they learn to elevate conversations on race in their communities and homes.

Morton, who died in 1851, took measurements of the skulls and argued that larger crania were a sign of higher intelligence. He also believed that five races — Caucasian, Mongolian, American (referring to American Indians), Malay, and Ethiopian (later called Negro) — each had separate origins. "He was what was called a 'polygenesis' person," Monge said. "He thought that God independently created each of the races."

Asked if the skulls are in fact different, Quinn said, "No, of course not." She added, "Scientifically, biologically, race is not a thing. It doesn't exist [scientifically], but, of course, it does [culturally]."

Monge said there were differences in measurements among the skulls, but added that Morton, who worked in the early days of scientific measurement, mixed males and females together in his groups. The African skulls came from two groups of slaves who died on their way to Cuba. They were likely related, and many were women. While brain size is not related to intelligence, it does correlate with body size.

The program was developed by Monge along with John L. Jackson Jr., dean of Penn's School of Social Policy and Practice, and Deborah Thomas, a professor of anthropology and Africana studies at Penn. Many of the speakers are from Penn, but the panels also include professors from several other U.S. and foreign universities.

Topics for later discussions include biomedicine and race; genetics and race; geography, culture and race; and violence and race.