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Morton Cranial Collection

Last updated: July 8, 2024

Content warning: Contains discussion of human remains

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

As we confront our institutional history tied to colonialist and racist narratives, we are continuously working to reconcile our past with restorative practices.

This page documents both the historical background of the Samuel G. Morton Cranial Collection as well as updates on the Museum’s work towards its repatriation and repair.

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.

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 Biological 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 repair

In January and February 2024, the Penn Museum and the University of Pennsylvania took a step toward repair for unethical possession of human remains in the Morton Collection, returning 19 Black Philadelphians in the Collection to the community by laying them to rest at Historic Eden Cemetery. A public Interfaith Commemoration Service in honor of these Philadelphians, at which Provost John Jackson and Museum Williams Director Chris Woods apologized for their unethical possession, was held at the Museum on February 3, 2024.

As this step demonstrates, we take 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.

A version of this was published as an op-ed in The Philadelphia Inquirer on February 27, 2024.

After 200 Years, 19 Philadelphians are Laid to Rest

In February 2024, the University of Pennsylvania Museum interred the crania of 19 Black Philadelphians at Eden Cemetery, a historic Black cemetery on the outskirts of Philadelphia. These individuals, who lived some 200 years ago, were among the most vulnerable and disenfranchised in society. At the time of their deaths, their crania were unethically collected by physician Samuel G. Morton (1799-1851) and his associates, who attempted to provide a scientific basis for racism by seeking evidence in the skulls that would demonstrate the superiority of Europeans. In this way, they became part of the infamous Morton Cranial Collection, the largest collection of human crania in its day, which included remains of individuals from around the world. The names of these Philadelphians are not known—Morton did not record them. His bookkeeping entries are primarily limited to age range, sex, occasionally circumstances of death, and, of course, race. Originally housed in the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, the Morton Cranial Collection was relocated to the Penn Museum in 1966.

When I arrived at Penn in 2021, the Museum was embroiled in controversies involving its holding of human remains of African Americans. Driven initially by the larger reckoning around race that occurred in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, museums have faced growing scrutiny over the legacies of their colonial collecting practices, which included the acquisition of remains of enslaved and Indigenous people. It was in the course of confronting our museum’s past that we decided to address the future of the Morton Collection, beginning with the Black Philadelphians, some of whom were likely born enslaved, based on the demographic data of the time. I convened a committee of West Philadelphia community and religious leaders to advise us on a path forward. Because we lack knowledge of the names of the individuals in the collection, these citizens volunteered to serve as representatives in lieu of their lineal descendants.

Our community partners were insistent that these individuals did not belong in museum storerooms. After nearly 200 years in storage and of being subjected to exhibition and scientific study, they should finally be laid to rest without delay—they should wait no longer. Doing so, they urged, would prioritize their human dignity and restore the personhood that had been so violently stripped away from them. This would be a reckoning with our museum's colonial past and an act of reconciliation with our local community.

In collaboration with our community advisory committee, we put forth a plan to lay the Black Philadelphians to rest at Eden Cemetery and commemorate them with an interfaith ceremony—which took place on February 3, 2024. Importantly, our plan called for interment in an above-ground mausoleum, so that if, in the future, research might lead to an identification and a legitimate claim be made, the remains can be easily retrieved and entrusted to the descendants. Our process is by design fully reversible, should the facts or circumstances change.

From our perspective, the prompt interment of these individuals is an imperative of ethical stewardship. Critics of our approach have argued that the Black Philadelphians should remain in storerooms until such time as research leads to an identification and, in turn, a claim by a descendant or community. This criticism prioritizes the prospective search for lineal descendants over the immediate human dignity of the deceased, in the hopes that 19th-century archives would allow conclusive identification of individuals and descendants. There is, however, no guarantee that these hopes would ever be realized. Research carried out in local and city records over the last several years has, in fact, shed some new light on the circumstances of some of these individuals. But, to date, these efforts have not yielded a single new name that can be conclusively used for identification. Nor has this research resulted in a claim from a descendant or from a federally recognized tribe, as would be required by the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) for those individuals with possible Native American ancestry.

Museums and cultural institutions too often delay or avoid repatriations by claiming that more extensive research and conclusive evidence is warranted before any action can be taken to return human remains and other culturally sensitive objects to descendant communities. Indeed, the most recent NAGPRA regulations—the only legal framework available to guide repatriations of any kind—are aimed at undercutting such dilatory tactics. They require museums to determine cultural affiliation based on “the information available,” stressing that “cultural affiliation does not require exhaustive studies, additional research, or continuity through time.”

It's my sincere hope that continued research efforts will be successful in restoring the identity of at least some of the Black Philadelphians in the Morton Collection. But given the nature of the 19th-century records available, it is unlikely that most of these individuals will ever be identified with certainty. To wait without a foreseeable end for research that may never be conclusive would be tantamount to doing nothing at all, which, from an ethical perspective, is unacceptable for our museum.

In the best-case scenario, should an identification be made, further difficult questions will surely arise. To whom among descendants with potentially equal claims should the remains be given? And what neutral party will manage this process, which may involve complex legal entanglements and associated costs? Answering these questions will undoubtedly add years to the two centuries that these individuals have endured in museum collections. And even this best-case scenario presupposes that there are descendants willing to assume the obligations associated with claiming the remains of 19th-century ancestors.

It will be a happy day, indeed, if the foregoing obstacles are surmounted and we can return at least some of these Philadelphians to their descendants. For now, while the research continues, let them rest in peace and with dignity at Eden Cemetery, rather than in the storerooms of the Penn Museum.

  • In July 2020, the Penn Museum relocated to storage the part of the Morton Collection that was inside a private classroom within its Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials (CAAM Classroom 190).
  • In August 2020, we formed a committee to evaluate with community involvement and consultation, the next steps towards repatriation or burial of the crania of enslaved individuals within this Collection. As evaluation occurs on a case-to-case basis, this complex and rigorous process will take time to ensure each one is handled in an ethical and respectful manner.
  • A report on the Morton Collection, authored by Ph.D. candidate Paul Wolff Mitchell, was released on February 15, 2021, and published on the website of the Penn Program on Race, Science, and Society. This project was made possible by the School of Arts and Sciences and the Netter Center for Community Partnerships. The Museum is evaluating the report's contributions documenting Black Philadelphians in the Collection and will include this information as it takes important steps towards repatriation and repair.
  • The Morton Collection Committee presented its report to the Museum on April 8, 2021. It documents an action plan as well as fundamental community involvement and resources required for implementing repatriation and repair. The report was shared with the public on April 12 through a press release and social media posts.
  • In June 2021, we formed a new Morton Cranial Collection Community Advisory Group, which includes members from Philadelphia community organizations, spiritual leaders, and city officials together with Penn’s offices of Social Equity and Community, Government and Community Affairs, the University Chaplain, Faculty, and General Counsel. This group is charged with reviewing, assessing , and making recommendations for the respectful burial and commemoration of the cranial remains of the Black Philadelphians, which are part of the Morton Cranial Collection.
  • As of December 2021, the Morton Cranial Collection Community Advisory Group has made the following recommendations concerning the burial and commemoration of the Black Philadelphians whose cranial remains are part of the Morton Collection:
    • Arrange for the burial of the Black Philadelphians at Eden Cemetery, a local historic black cemetery. An inter-faith memorial service will be led by local spiritual leaders.
    • Place a permanent marker of remembrance located on Penn campus followed by a public commemoration ceremony.
    • Participate in a community-led public forum as part of steps towards restorative practices, atonement, and repair.
  • In 2022, we petitioned Philadelphia Orphans’ Court to seek approval to respectfully bury and commemorate the Black Philadelphians whose cranial remains are part of the Morton Collection. Public notices in local newspapers were also published in June and July 2022.
  • On September 1, 2022, an informal judicial conference was held to review the petition and the opposing perspectives that have emerged. As expected, the Court has issued a decree for a hearing on November 30, 2022 at 10 a.m. Following a request for a continuance from all parties involved, the hearing has been rescheduled to February 2, 2023. We welcome this next step, in the interest of continued transparency throughout the process.
  • As of January 2023, the Penn Museum has provided easier access to research on the Morton Cranial Collection. Although the 19th-century archives were publicly available for decades, the new documents present the information in a more accessible way.

    A paper in 2021 suggested there were at least 14 Black Philadelphians in the Morton Collection based on Morton's catalogues through 1849. However, additional research by the Penn Museum now identifies additional Black Philadelphians, including those added after 1849.

    The research reports are available here.

    Relatively little is known about these (12) women and (8) men:
    • With the exception of John Voorhees (b. 1811-d. 1846) from Chester County, PA, all others are listed as unnamed individuals.
    • Of those, four died in Philadelphia; another four likely died in Philadelphia; and 12 had no documentation that tied them to Philadelphia, but based on Morton's standard record-keeping practices: if a person was from the Philadelphia region, their location was not noted with a geographic-identifier label.
    • Some records indicate a possible cause of death, such as tuberculosis, cholera, or stomach cancer, while other records suggest an approximate date on when each person's cranial remains were acquired.
    • None of the cranial remains show any evidence of a previous burial.
    • In the Meigs and Morton catalogues, none of them were identified as being enslaved. However, based on what is known about the demographics of the Black population born prior to 1840 in Philadelphia, it is likely that some were enslaved.

    Using a rigorous NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection & Repatriation Act)-informed process, the Museum has prepared reports that reflect the known information about each of the individuals proposed for burial at Eden Cemetery, based on observations from CT (computerized tomography) scans and 19th-century archival records:
    • Two catalogues from Samuel G. Morton in 1840 and 1849.
    • The third was published in 1857 by James. A Meigs, a colleague from the Academy who stewarded the collection after Morton's death in 1851.

    In addition, here is a link to a List of Contents for the Morton Collection.
  • By Decree dated February 13, 2023, the Philadelphia Orphans’ Court has granted the Penn Museum’s request to respectfully lay to rest the cranial remains of individuals at a historic African-American cemetery and commemorate them with a public memorial service.
  • On January 22, 2024, after nearly 200 years, 19 of the 20 Black Philadelphians whose remains were part of the Morton Cranial Collection were interred at Historic Eden Cemetery, following the recommendations of the Morton Cranial Collection Community Advisory Group and a decree from the Philadelphia Orphans’ Court. The remains of John Voorhees were held at the Museum, following information allowing for the possibility that they may fall under NAGPRA.
  • On February 3, 2024, a public Interfaith Commemoration Service at the Penn Museum, followed by a blessing and committal at Historic Eden Cemetery, honored the memory of these 19 Black Philadelphians. The service was led by distinguished spiritual leaders Reverend Dr. J. Wendell Mapson, Jr., Imam Kenneth Nuriddin, and University of Pennsylvania Chaplain Reverend Dr. Charles L. Howard and included remarks from Provost John Jackson, Museum Director Chris Woods, and Michelle Thornhill of Eden Cemetery. Watch a video of the commemoration and blessing here.
  • Following recommendations from the Morton Community Advisory Group, a memorial has been commissioned to honor the individuals whose remains were unethically collected during the 19th century to further science. The permanent marker of remembrance will be placed on the Penn Museum's grounds. Advance notice of its public unveiling ceremony will be shared later this year.

Our ongoing commitment to ethical practices and 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 burial 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

The Morton Collection consists of over 1,300 crania, which were collected by Samuel Morton and others during the mid-19th century. 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.

The crania come from all parts of the world and range in date from ancient Egyptian times to the 19th century. As such, the Morton Collection needs to be treated as multiple smaller groupings, rather than as a single unit.

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.

19th-century archival records from the Morton collection identified at least 13 individuals as Black Philadelphians. Laying their cranial remains to rest in an initial step that reflects our ongoing work towards repair.

As further research yields new information about individuals in the collection, we remain committed to taking appropriate steps towards repatriation or burial.

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.

The Collection is housed in storage in the Museum’s Biological 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 Biological 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.

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 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

For more information specific to the Morton Cranial Collection, please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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