Morton Collection of Human Crania in the Spotlight With Year of Proof: Making and Unmaking Race

Famous—and Infamous—Morton Collection of Human Crania in the Spotlight
With Year of Proof: Making and Unmaking Race
New Exhibition at the Penn Museum Now through August 18, 2013

crania verticalPHILADELPHIA, September 2012—Is there such a thing in humans called race? That’s the question posed by the Penn Museum’s new exhibition, Year of Proof: Making and Unmaking Race, on view now through August 18, 2013, in the Museum’s Trescher Entrance foyer.

Since the emergence of biology and anthropology, scientists began to develop categories for all living things on earth, including humans. But what can the categorization of humans tell us? And how might this information be helpful or harmful?

Race is only one way of categorizing human variation. Penn Museum houses the once famous, now infamous Morton Collection of human crania, originally collected in the mid-1800s to confirm society’s beliefs about racial hierarchy. Making and Unmaking Race considers how scientists have used the Morton Collection from the 19th century to today, and what implications arose from their respective analyses. Developed in conjunction with the University of Pennsylvania’s Year of Proof, the small exhibition features mid-19th century measuring devices, short videos that shed light on both contemporary and historical research methods, and more than a dozen human crania from the Morton Collection.

On Thursday, October 4, 4:30 pm, the Museum hosts a free related mini-symposium, “From Skulls to Scans: How Brain Measurements Have Been Used, Misused, and Misunderstood in the Study of Racial Difference.”
Philadelphia physician and scientist Samuel George Morton (1799–1851) was known for his measurement and analysis of human skulls, and he collected about 1,200 human crania from around the world to conduct his early research. Like many Americans of his time, Morton believed that Europeans were more intelligent than other races, and his ideas helped fuel public debate about slavery and racial inequality. As time went on, his research conclusions were soundly refuted—and his famous collection grew infamous.

crania horizontalProminent evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould (1941–2002), writing in in a 1978 article in Science and later in his book The Mismeasure of Man (1981), charged that Morton had selectively reported data, manipulated sample compositions, made analytical errors, and mis-measured skulls in order to support his prejudicial views on intelligence differences between human groups. Gould’s charges, the first to popularly discredit Morton’s scientific methodology, were not challenged until researchers at Penn Museum decided to perform Morton’s measurements anew. That team found them largely accurate, although agreeing with Gould that Morton’s conclusions were erroneous and racist.  Their published results—highlighted as one of the 100 top science stories of 2011 by Discovery magazine—informs the exhibition: "The Mismeasure of Science: Stephen Jay Gould versus Samuel George Morton on Skulls and Bias" (June 2011, in the online journal PLoS Biology).

Today, scholars continue to use the Morton Collection to study human diversity, now also using state-of-the-art 3D CT scans—examples of which are on display—to examine the international collection that Samuel Morton compiled more than 150 years ago.

A computer station featuring a public survey on personal convictions and understandings about race is adjacent to the foyer exhibition, as the Museum considers plans for a possible larger exhibition on the topic. Consulting scholars for Making and Unmaking Race were Janet Monge, Associate Curator of Physical Anthropology at the Penn Museum; Michael Weisberg, Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of Pennsylvania; Michael Yudell, Associate Professor, School of Public Health, Drexel University; and graduate student Samantha Cox (formerly at Penn, now studying at the University of Cambridge).

Year of Proof: Making and Unmaking Race is made possible with the support of the Office of New Student Orientation and Academic Initiatives, the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy, the Center for Neuroscience and Society, the Department of History and Sociology of Science, the Department of Philosophy, University of Pennsylvania; and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Thursday, October 4, 2012 Mini Symposium
4:30 pm, Penn Museum Nevil Classroom

From Skulls to Scans: How Brain Measurements Have Been Used, Misused, and Misunderstood in the Study of Racial Differences

MortonCollectionThe Morton Collection, housed at the Penn Museum, was used to test theories of racial differences in the 19th century. Debate surrounding Samuel Morton’s measurements and their interpretation was revived in the 20th century by Stephen Jay Gould and again in the 21st century by Penn anthropologists. Meanwhile, in the new era of brain imaging, scientists continue to investigate brain differences between groups of people, including racial groups. What has changed, and what has stayed the same? What have we learned? What assumptions about people, brains, and race are implicit in this research? Brief scientific presentations by: Janet Monge, Penn Museum, and Geoffrey Aguirre, Penn Department of Neurology. Commentary by: Dorothy Roberts, Penn Law School. This free program is sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania Center for Neuroscience and Society.



Penn Museum (the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology), celebrating its 125th anniversary in 2012, is dedicated to the study and understanding of human history and diversity. Founded in 1887, the Museum has sent more than 400 archaeological and anthropological expeditions to all the inhabited continents of the world. With an active exhibition schedule and educational programming for children and adults, the Museum offers the public an opportunity to share in the ongoing discovery of humankind's collective heritage.

Penn Museum is located at 3260 South Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104 (on Penn's campus, across from Franklin Field). Public transportation to the Museum is available via SEPTA's Regional Rail Line at University City Station; the Market-Frankford Subway Line at 34th Street Station; trolley routes 11, 13, 34, and 36; and bus routes 12, 21, 30, 40, and 42. Museum hours are Tuesday and Thursday through Sunday, 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, and Wednesday, 10:00 am to 8:00 pm, with P.M. @ PENN MUSEUM evening programs offered select Wednesdays. Closed Mondays and holidays. Admission donation is $12 for adults; $10 for senior citizens (65 and above); $10 for U.S. Military; $8 for children (6 to 17) and full-time students with ID; free to Members, PennCard holders, and children 5 and younger; "pay-what-you-want" the last hour before closing. Hot and cold meals and light refreshments are offered to visitors with or without Museum admission in The Pepper Mill Café; the Museum Shop and Pyramid Shop for Children offer a wide selection of gifts, books, games, clothing and jewelry. Penn Museum can be found on the web at For general information call 215.898.4000. For group tour information call 215.746.8183.

Captions: (Top and middle photos) Penn Museum’s Year of Proof: Making and Unmaking Race exhibition, now through August 18, 2013 in the Museum’s Trescher entrance foyer, explores the concept of race in humans through the lens of the Museum’s Morton Collection of crania. Here, a European male crania is shown in a 19th century metal craniostat. Physician Samuel Morton invented the science of measuring skulls and used an instrument like this to measure crania size. Photo: Penn Museum. (Bottom photo) Several skulls from the Penn Museum’s Morton Collection of human crania, featured in the exhibition Year of Proof: Making and Unmaking Race, now through August 18, 2013 in the Museum’s Trescher entrance foyer. Photo: Steven Minicola.


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(215) 898-4000


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