A 19th-century illustration of a human skull (public domain)

Recently, Hyperallergic reported that the Penn Museum at the University of Pennsylvania will be removing a cranial collection from display in a basement classroom. The group of crania, which was donated by a 19th-century Philadelphia-born and UPenn-educated physician named Samuel George Morton, includes many skulls of enslaved Black peopleThe collection is a product of racist, pseudoscientific “race science” that Morton and his peers perpetuated. Members of the UPenn community actively denounced its display at the institution for many years prior to the museum’s recent decision.

Hyperallergic’s news editor Jasmine Weber and reporter Hakim Bishara join me to discuss this story and what Police Free Penn, a group consisting of UPenn students and local activists, is demanding the museum abolish the collection.

The music this episode is an instrumental version of “Begin Again” by Kill the Alarm.

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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.

One reply on “Why Would a Museum Display Skulls of Enslaved People in the First Place?”

  1. …um … they would do this because the skulls of enslaved persons only made up a small (very small) portion of the collection of thousands of skulls from around the world and nobody would glean this info. from hearing the above-posted very one-sided podcast. Moreover, the the whole thrust of the man’s scientific good works was not ONLY to prove certain ethnicities inferior but rather part of a far larger gesamtwerk (over many decades) that had many facets from all I have read and which has been diluted and reduced to something so worthless as to be easily dismissed in one sentence (one stroke of a writer’s pen) as if this one disturbing and indeed regrettable aspect of it sums up the whole of this man’s very extensive studies. Also the university validated that the man’s data was pure and not influenced by his beliefs when one scholar suggested that data was corrupt due to Morton’s racism (nope, it wasn’t, assertion wrong, data was checked). There is validity in still teaching what he did–right AND wrong and using the man’s skulls and data has taught many generations of students good science, not racism (from what I read). His drawings and work still have much validity today and we can indeed (as academics) put wrong theories aside and not toss out the baby with the bathwater. (Well we can but it’s not being done…) What if we erased from science all pre-Darwinian theories? What if we erased phrenology or Bertillion’s way of identifying criminals from history…because we’ve learned more since? What if what we THINK is true about…oh…just about anything is wrong too! If we’ve erased all the steps before us we’ll have little indeed to look upon in problem-solving. I would suggest the collection be kept because mistakes can be elucidating. Moving it out of a classroom makes sense for many reasons, but keeping it on display (with dialogue about what the man got wrong…or right ) is worthwhile. A whole picture is far more fair in any democratic society…this used to be one… I have seen this collection and it’s really quite fascinating and the man’s misguided racial theories were mentioned in display text– so it’s sad nobody else will see it again.

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