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The Penn Museum at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia (Windell Oskay/Flickr)

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Just over a week after the Penn Museum apologized for hosting the stolen skulls of enslaved people in its Morton Collection, it is now embroiled in a second controversy involving its possession of remains of Black Philadelphians killed in the MOVE Bombing.

According to reports yesterday, April 21, in the local news outlets BillyPenn and the Philadelphia Inquirer, the remains of victims of the 1985 bombing had been stored at the museum for decades, later to be moved back and forth between Penn and Princeton University.

Eleven people, including five children, were killed in a police airstrike against members of the Black liberation movement MOVE on May 13, 1985. Police attempted to expel members of the movement from a west Philadelphia building with water cannons, tear gas, and live ammunition. After an armed standoff, a police helicopter dropped two bombs on the building. The Philadelphia Fire Department allowed the fire to spread to others buildings, subsequently decimating more than 60 homes in the predominantly Black neighborhood.

The MOVE Bombing continues to cast a long shadow on Philadelphia’s relationship with its Black residents. Last November, the city formally apologized for the “immeasurable and enduring harm” caused by the bombing. A resolution by the city council acknowledged the “fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of the MOVE Bombing,” and declared the anniversary of the attack as “a day of observation, reflection and recommitment.”

 The Penn Museum (Wikimedia Commons)

After failing to conclusively identify the remains of one victim of the bombing, the 1985 MOVE Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission invited Alan Mann, at the time a Penn professor of anthropology and a curator at the Penn Museum’s Physical Anthropology Section, to conduct an examination. Since then, Mann has been attempting to determine whether two bones that were handed to him belonged Tree Africa, who was killed at age 14 in the bombing.

“Because of the inconclusive evidence, the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s office transferred the remains to the custody of Dr. Mann for continued analysis in the hopes of achieving a positive identification,” a spokesperson for the Penn Museum told Hyperallergic in an email. “When he was appointed as a professor of anthropology at Princeton University in 2001, the remains were relocated there.”

According to BillyPenn’s report, the remains were kept in a cardboard box on a shelf at the Penn Museum before they were transferred to Princeton University. The museum, however, claims that the remains were “treated respectfully throughout the process.” (Princeton has not responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.)

In 2016, the remains were returned to the Penn Museum to be examined with a new technology that became available at its lab. “The Museum’s lab Keeper and Associate Curator of the Physical Anthropology Section Dr. Janet Monge led continued investigations to confirm the person’s identity from 2016 to 2019,” the museum’s spokesperson confirmed.

During that period, Monge used the remains in an instructional video offered by Princeton University on the website Coursera. Monge’s class is titled “Real Bones: Adventures in Forensic Anthropology.” Monge presented the remains as a case study in restoring “personhood.”

After being held at the museum for the past five years, the remains were abruptly returned to Mann on Saturday, April 17, by an order from the museum’s new director, Christopher Woods. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Woods made the decision after hearing renewed concerns about the remains. “We will be reassessing our practices of collecting, stewarding, displaying, and researching human remains,” the museum added. 

“The remains have been returned and entrusted to the care of Dr. Alan Mann,” the spokesperson confirmed to Hyperallergic. Mann could not be reached for comment.

The museum said that the remains had not yet been positively identified, adding that, “Forensic anthropologists asked the family’s permission to conduct a DNA analysis to confirm the identity of the partial remains, but were unable to proceed.”

Mike Africa Jr., a current member of MOVE whose family members died in the 1985 bombing, told BillyPenn: “They were bombed, and burned alive … and now you wanna keep their bones.”

In an opinion piece for the Inquirer, Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, the co-founder of the nonprofit Black & Brown Workers Co-op, demanded an apology from the museum and restitution for the MOVE family.

“The state violence against Black Philadelphians represented by the MOVE bombing, which City Council apologized for last November, overlaps with the violence of academic institutions keeping the remains of Black people rather than relinquishing those remains for burial,” Muhammad wrote.

Editor’s note 4/28/2021 1:45pm: We have removed a screenshot image of the Coursera class upon researching ongoing discussions regarding ethical concerns over publishing photographs that feature human remains.

Hakim Bishara

Hakim Bishara is a staff writer for 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...

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