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Morton Cranial Collection

A 2016 panel discussion The Public Classroom: Science and Race: History, Use, and Abuse, which gathered more than two dozen internationally recognized experts from diverse backgrounds for an in-depth exploration about race, science, and social justice. Left to right: Michael Yudell, Rachel Watkins, Janet Monge, Paul Mitchell, and Claudine Cohen, with moderator Nichelle McKelvy-Polston.

Racism has no place in our Museum.

In the summer of 2020, the killing of George Floyd by police and the height of the Black Lives Matter movement ignited civil unrest that underscores the critical need for institutions like the Penn Museum to continuously examine the colonial and racist histories of their collecting practices. This page documents both the historical background of the Morton Collection as well as updates on the Museum’s work towards its repatriation and reburial.

Samuel G. Morton contributed to racist thought. From the 1830s through the 1840s, this Philadelphia-based physician and anatomy lecturer collected human crania. With broadly white supremacist views, Morton’s research on the crania was cited by some as evidence that Europeans, especially those of German and English ancestry, were intellectually, morally, and physically superior to all other races.

We reject scientific racism that was used to justify slavery and the unethical acquisition of the remains of enslaved people.

After Morton’s death in 1851, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia purchased and expanded the collection. It was moved to the Penn Museum in 1966, accessioned in 1996, and is now housed in storage in the Museum’s Physical Anthropology Section. Some of the crania had previously been stored in custom-made glass fronted cabinets in the Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials (CAAM) Classroom 190 and were eventually moved to storage in the summer of 2020. The collection has been referenced for scientific insight surrounding traumatic injury as well as health and disease patterns in past human populations.

Actions towards repatriation and reburial

The Penn Museum and the University of Pennsylvania apologize for the unethical possession of human remains in the Morton Collection. It is time for these individuals to be returned to their ancestral communities, wherever possible, as a step toward atonement and repair.

As we confront our institutional history tied to colonialism and racist narratives, we are continuously working towards restorative practices. We take very seriously the wide ethical, cross-cultural, and legal expectations and considerations that should be acknowledged with regard to the care and stewardship of human remains.

We will continue to update this page as progress is made.

Our Ongoing Commitment to Ethical Practices & Repair

In 1970, we became the first museum to take formal steps towards guaranteeing the ethical acquisition of materials and deterring looting and illicit antiquities trading. This statement of ethics was called the Pennsylvania Declaration and was presented at the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

In 1990, we hired a full-time Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) Coordinator and formed a NAGPRA Committee to begin working with Native American and Native Hawaiian communities on the respectful return of human remains of their peoples. Since then, the Penn Museum has mailed over 3,000 letters to federally recognized tribes informing them of our holdings and extending invitations to consult with us about our holdings. As of 2020, 49 formal repatriation claims seeking the return of collections have been received and 29 repatriations have been completed resulting in the transfer of 266 sets of human remains, 750 funerary objects, 14 unassociated funerary objects, 23 objects of cultural patrimony, 24 sacred objects and 2 objects claimed as both cultural patrimony and sacred.

In August 2020, the Morton Committee was formed to discuss a NAGPRA-informed infrastructure and process that would inform the repatriation or reburial of the enslaved and Black individuals in the Collection. In the Museum’s long history of working with heritage community stakeholders and in full compliance of the law, the committee will be evaluating each case individually in an ethical and respectful manner.

In August 2020, the U.S. Department of State entered into a Memorandum of Agreement with the Penn Cultural Heritage Center (PennCHC) to protect and preserve international cultural property at risk from political instability, armed conflict, or natural or other disasters. PennCHC draws upon the expertise of the curators and researchers of the Penn Museum to develop long-term programs for the preservation and promotion of community-based cultural heritage. This includes studying the threats to cultural heritage from the looting and plundering of archaeological and historical sites, the illicit antiquities trade, and commercial development.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Morton Cranial Collection?

The Morton Collection is made up of more than 1,300 crania, including skulls from enslaved individuals. About 900 crania were acquired by Philadelphia-based physician and anatomy lecturer Samuel George Morton during the 1830s and 1840s. After his death in 1851, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia purchased and expanded the collection. It was moved to the Penn Museum in 1966.

The exact number of crania in the collection is difficult to determine due to inconsistencies and renumbering in the Morton and Meig's catalogues. The figures provided in these pages are based on the best current assessments around constantly evolving research into the Collection.

Who was Samuel George Morton?

Samuel George Morton (1799–1851) was a Philadelphia-based physician and anatomy lecturer. He worked at the Academy of Natural Sciences, where he conducted research into paleontology and on a large collection of human skulls, which later came to be known as the Morton Cranial Collection. However, leading scholars such as Charles Darwin regarded Morton as a second-rate scholar, who poorly documented information presented in his publications, made arbitrary assumptions, and came to false conclusions.

Where is the Morton Collection in the Museum?

The Collection is housed in storage in the Museum’s Physical Anthropology Section. Some of the crania had previously been stored in custom-made glass-fronted cabinets in CAAM Classroom 190. This was originally intended to be a dedicated Physical Anthropology classroom; however, with CAAM’s growth, 190 has become a multi-use classroom, and the Museum determined that having these skulls on view was not appropriate.

How has the Morton Collection been used for research?

From 2004 to 2011, the Museum was awarded a National Science Foundation grant to CT scan the Morton Collection. As of March 2020, more than 17,500 CT scans have been distributed to scholars around the world; often, researchers use both the actual crania with the CT scans in their research. Researchers have included colleagues from Penn Medicine, Penn Dental, and Penn Law; topics have included worldwide variation in the functional morphology (shape) of the cranium, patterns of growth and development of the cranium and dentition, the analysis of traumatic injury, shape changes in dentition and palate, health and disease patterns of peoples in past human populations, and more.

The Collection prompts important discussions of race and science for audiences from students to the general public; it played a primary role in the Penn Museum’s 2016 Public Classroom public series on Science and Race: History, Use, and Abuse.

Questions?

For general questions, including more information about repatriation and the Museum’s policy on human remains, please contact director@pennmuseum.org.

For more information specific to the Morton Cranial Collection, please contact physicalanthropologysection@pennmuseum.org.

For press-related inquiries, please contact pr@pennmuseum.org.