A protest outside the Penn Museum in Philadelphia on April 8, 2021 (photo courtesy Police Free Penn)

Responding to pressure from local activists, the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia released a statement yesterday, April 12, apologizing for its Morton Collection, which includes stolen crania of enslaved people. The museum also announced an action plan to repatriate the remains to “descendants and communities of origin” of the deceased.

“The Penn Museum and the University of Pennsylvania apologize for the unethical
possession of human remains in the Morton Collection,” said the museum’s director, Christopher Woods, in yesterday’s statement.

“It is time for these individuals to be returned to their ancestral communities, wherever possible, as a step toward atonement and repair for the racist and colonial practices that were integral to the formation of these collections,” Woods’s statement continued. “We will also reassess our practices of collecting, stewarding, displaying, and researching human remains.”

About 50 UPenn students and activists from Police Free Penn and Black & Brown Workers Co-op staged a protest on the university’s campus.

The museum’s statement came days after a group of about 50 UPenn students and activists from Police Free Penn (PFP) and Black & Brown Workers Co-op staged a protest on the university’s campus, urging the museum to abolish the Morton Collection, end the use of data sourced from the collection, and repatriate all of its contents, among other demands.

The action on April 8 included speeches, prayers, and spiritual ceremonies. The protesters carried signs that that read “Return the Remains” and “Abolish the Collection.” They chanted: “When ancestors are under attack, what do we do? We fight back” while marching to the residence of UPenn’s president, Amy Gutmann.

Timed to coincide with the final meeting of a Penn committee on the Morton Collection, the protest was promoted by recent revelations that the collection includes the remains of enslaved Black Philadelphians, which were robbed from a former potter’s field on the university’s grounds. The new information, detailed in a report by Paul Wolff Mitchell, a doctoral candidate in anthropology and a fellow in the Penn Medicine and the Afterlives of Slavery project, adds to a 2019 study by the Penn & Slavery Project. The earlier study had found that the collection includes 53 crania of enslaved individuals from Havana, Cuba, and crania of two individuals enslaved in the United States. 

In the summer of 2020, Penn Museum relocated parts of the Morton Collection to storage and formed a committee to examine the potential repatriation and reburial of the remains. At the time, the university called the issue “complicated,” saying that “not much is known about these individuals other than that they came to Morton from Cuba.” To the dismay of activists, the museum’s then-director, Julian Siggers, stated that the collection would still be accessible for research.

“When ancestors are under attack, what do we do? We fight back,” the protesters chanted outside the Penn Museum

According to the museum, the Morton Collection Committee was composed of museum leadership, staff, anthropologists, and students who have been “comprehensively evaluating next steps for repatriation and reburial since last summer.”

The committee released its recommendations yesterday, which started with an acknowledgment that the museum’s collections contain human remains and cultural items that were “collected unethically.”

“The Museum should return ancestors to their descendants and communities of origin whenever possible as a step towards atoning for the racist, unethical, and colonial practices which were integral to the formation of these collections,” the committee’s report stated.

The report added that the museum should “reassess its practices of collecting, storing, displaying, and researching human remains.” It also recommended that Penn provide a visitation location for human remains that “provides a quiet, contemplative space for reconnections and consultation visits in its future plans for rehousing the collections.”

In addition, the report recommends forming a “repatriation committee,” which would be “responsible for all repatriations” and led by BIPOC community members. This all should be done in a “transparent, repeatable, and lasting” process that involves community consultation, the report says.

The protesters marched to the residence of UPenn President Amy Gutmann.

“This is definitely a great step for the museum to take, and we’re happy with this commitment to return all remains in the collection,” said PFP in a statement to Hyperallergic. “We want to make sure there is real community participation in this process every step of the way, not just from folks connected with the institution. Let’s not forget what it took to get here: Black community organizers putting themselves at risk to take a stand, and a summer of mass Black Lives Matter protests met with horrific police violence and repression.”

Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, the co-founder of the nonprofit Black & Brown Workers Co-op, told Hyperallergic that while they are “excited and happy” that enslaved people in the collection will get their final rest, there’s still “a lot more to be done.”

“The report meets one of our demands about the repatriation of the remains but does not address other demands around reparations to communities harmed by the university,” Muhammad said, adding that Penn had made considerable profits from the Morton Collection throughout its history.

The activist also stressed the need for the inclusion of community representatives in the planned repatriation committee, saying, “I don’t necessarily trust a committee staffed entirely by Penn representatives.”

“This is just the beginning,” Muhammad added. “It’s useful that the university is listening to the demands of the community and its students, but there’s more work to be done.”

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...