For decades, the University of Pennsylvania has held hundreds of skulls that once were used to promote white supremacy through racist scientific research.
The University of Pennsylvania’s decision to repatriate human remains, once part of the Morton Cranial Collection has sparked controversy and discussions around institutional racism, community involvement and the handling of historical artifacts.
As part of a larger effort to reassess how human remains are handled among museums, the school laid to rest the remains of 19 Black Philadelphians with a memorial service held last week.
The university says it is attempting to rectify past wrongs, but some community members say they feel excluded from the process. Here’s what you should know about this ongoing issue:
1. What Is The Morton Cranial Collection?
The Morton Cranial Collection was started in the 1830s by physician Samuel George Morton, and it was used to promote racist pseudoscience asserting racial differences and superiority.
Morton’s goal with the collection was to use cranial measurements to argue that different races were distinct species of humans, with white people considered the superior species. His racist pseudoscience had a profound impact on scientific research. It was used to justify the concept of racial hierarchy, particularly in the antebellum South, where it was linked to supporting slavery.
Morton, a medical professor in Philadelphia, played a role in shaping medical education during his time. Lyra Monteiro, an anthropological archaeologist and professor at Rutgers University, notes that the remnants of Morton’s disproven work still influence the medical field today, contributing to medical racism.
“Medical racism can really exist on the back of that,” Monteiro said, according to The Associated Press. “His ideas became part of how medical students were trained.”
Human remains have been housed at the university since 1966, and some remains have been used for teaching as recently as 2020. In 2021, the university apologized and revised its procedures for handling human remains.
“Repatriation should be part of what the museum does, and we should embrace it,” said Christopher Woods, the museum’s director, The Associated Press reports.
2. Memorial Service and Controversy
The University of Pennsylvania has repatriated the remains of 19 Black Philadelphians who were part of that collection, held a memorial service for the individuals, and reinterred their remains in Eden Cemetery, a local historic Black cemetery. However, community members are upset and feel excluded from decision-making because they had no input. They argue that justice involves community input and decision-making.
3. Community Perspectives
Community activists, such as Abdul-Aliy A. Muhammad, emphasize the importance of letting the affected community decide on matters of repatriation. For years, several Black leaders and advocates in Philadelphia have resisted the plan to reenter the remains in Eden Cemetery.
Critics highlight challenges faced by institutions in addressing institutional racism, particularly in cases involving human remains and artifacts obtained unethically or through racist practices. Institutions often maintain control over the repatriation process, leading to concerns about insufficient community representation in decision-making.
“That’s not repatriation. We’re saying that Christopher Woods does not get to decide to do that,” Muhammad said. “The same institution that has been holding and exerting control for years over these captive ancestors is not the same institution that can give them ceremony.”
4. What Happens Next?
The university has formed an advisory committee to decide on the next steps. Still, critics argue that it was primarily composed of university officials and local religious leaders, lacking broader community representation from. Some researchers challenge the claim that the identities of the individuals were lost, emphasizing the need for more research and consideration of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in one case.
The situation reflects broader challenges institutions face in addressing historical injustices, respecting communities affected by such practices, and balancing conservation and repatriation considerations.