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Museum buries remains of Black people held on display

The remains were part of a collection from a scientist in the 1800s who falsely tried to prove that European brains were superior to other races.
Museum buries remains of Black people held on display
Posted at 9:27 AM, Feb 16, 2024

On a chilly morning in Pennsylvania; a gathering nearly 200 years in the making.

The remains of 19 unknown Black Philadelphians, previously held by University of Pennsylvania's Penn Museum, were laid to rest on a week prior. Now, crowds gathered to remember their lost humanity.

The day-long event honored their lives through songs, performances and speeches; though their identities, for the most part, are unknown.

The remains were part of the Samuel G. Morton Cranial Collection. Morton, a prominent scientist and physician in the 1800s, took the remains to prove the brains of other races were intellectually and morally inferior to Europeans. His now debunked ideas would lay the groundwork for racism in the medical community for years.

As such, the event also included apologies from the museum and promises of change.

"Human beings, our brothers, sisters…dehumanized should never have been on display," said University Professor of Communications, John L. Jackson Jr. "For that, on behalf of the entire university, please accept my most sincere regrets and my deepest apologies."

SEE MORE: A look inside a museum teaching history with racist memorabilia

And it's not just the Penn Museum.

Museums across the country have been grappling with what to do with hundreds of thousands of human remains, some collected in the name of science via expeditions, others taken without consent from poor or marginalized groups.

A 1990 law known as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation ACT, or NAGPRA, outlines how to handle the remains of indigenous people. However, there are no guidelines for other groups, leaving museums to devise their own plans.

In 2023, the Smithsonian established a task force to deal with the thousands of remains in their possession.

"I decided with the Morton issue that I would tackle the issue of the Black Philadelphians in the collection, which is obviously of great sensitivity," Penn Museum Director Chris Woods explained to Scripps News.

Some community members say the museum should not be the arbiters of what happens to the remains and that more research should have been done before the first set of burials. Woods pushed back on the complaints.

SEE MORE: This year, Black History Month spotlights creativity and the arts

"It's been a public process for nearly two years that we're going to do this. We posted notice in the Tribune, we posted notice in The Enquirer," he said. "And in the course of that time, I did not receive a single e-mail, a single phone call, a single request for a meeting, not a single member of the congregations that our advisors lead, our religious leaders lead, have ever come to me and said, 'you know, we're worried about this, let's put a pause on this.'"

Woods says they used NAGPRA as a starting point, but are now working through more extensive ways to handle the rest of Morton's collection, which contained 1300 crania from around the world.

"It has involved hiring new staff, new staff on the collection side of things, a new BIPOC bio anthropologist to lead these efforts," Woods said.

He believes this is a time to look holistically at the question of what museums should and shouldn't possess.

"We have to reassess all aspects of the legacy of collecting here at the museum," Woods added.

It's a task other institutions will undoubtedly face as well as the nation continues to grapple with its own skeletons and history.


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