When Museums Tackle Tough Topics

New Public Programs Foster Community Dialogue

By: Kate Quinn

Originally Published in 2017

View PDF

Update on the Morton collection

For updates on the Museum’s work towards the repatriation and burial of the Morton Collection, please refer to this page.

The Penn Museum’s Building Transformation Campaign works on more than one register—as it transforms its physical space and presents its collection in a dramatically different and relevant way, our Museum will also transform the ways it invites visitors to engage with the remarkable collections that tell the story of our common human history.

At the heart of this approach, we have begun to explore public program formats that provide a forum for discussion on topics inspired by the collection. A 2016 Public Classroom series on the controversial topics of race and science, inspired by our Morton Collection of Human Crania and funded by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, is a recent example.

Studying Human Skulls

Photo of skull
An Egyptian skull from the Morton Cranial Collection at the Penn Museum. The 19th century collection attracts modern researchers studying human biological variation.

The Morton Cranial Collection, assembled by Samuel George Morton in the 19th century, is one of the most famous collections of human skulls in the world, numbering 1,225 carefully prepared and labeled crania. Morton was a well-known, Philadelphia physician and natural scientist, best known for his measurement and analysis of human skulls, which he gathered from all over the world through his extensive network of colleagues. He is now remembered as the father of scientific racism. Morton’s work on categorizing human skulls by cranial capacity or brain size was used to justify early Western arguments for slavery and racial inequality.

Since coming to the Penn Museum in the 1960s, the unique composition of the Morton Collection as a comparative set—illustrating human biological variation in the skull from the early to middle 19th century—has made it invaluable for research, with hundreds of researchers requesting permission to visit the collection and use the CT scan data we have derived from it.

The Morton Collection also seemed invaluable as a public engagement tool—a catalyst for discussion on the timely and deeply important topics of race and science. Kate Quinn, Director of Exhibitions and Public Programs, and Dr. Janet Monge, Associate Curator-in-Charge and Keeper of Collections, Physical Anthropology Section, explored a number of ways to present the collection before arriving at the “Public Classroom” program format, presented in Fall 2016.

Photo of skulls at event
Samuel Morton divided his cranial collection into distinct categories. This categorization played a part in racial designations still used today.
Photo of Janet at event
Dr. Janet Monge answers a question from the audience. The Public Classroom presented attendees with an opportunity to ask questions of world-renowned race and science experts.

“The things we have buried long and deep into the earth and that we have forgotten or that we wish wouldn’t reappear are now reappearing. And I think we should think about that…because clearly burying our sentiments does not make them go away. They do fester and bubble over.”


– Christen Smith, Ph.D., speaker in the “Violence and Race” class, Assistant Professor of Anthropology and African and African Diaspora Studies, University of Texas at Austin.

Tackling Sensitive Subjects

The Public Classroom: Science and Race–History, Use, and Abuse advanced the Penn Museum’s mission to transform understanding of the human experience more so than any other public program offered in recent years. By tackling this sensitive topic, one that is not commonly discussed in programs presented by cultural organizations, the Museum provided public audiences from diverse educational levels with a powerful opportunity to examine their beliefs about race, science, and justice. An internationally recognized group of over 25 experts from various academic backgrounds led the audience in examining and transforming their understanding of race over the course of five public classes from September 21, 2016 to November 16, 2016 that were also live-streamed.

Photo of attendees looking at skulls
Attendees to the Public Classroominteracted with a selection of skulls from the Morton Collection in a facilitated collections workshop
Photo of Paul Mitchell
Paul Wolff Mitchell, graduate student in Anthropology, presents 18th- and 19th-century racial theories to Classroom participants.

“To be in a space where you can really get people to think a little bit differently about what they take for granted vis-à-vis race is a good thing, and I believe museums are the perfect context for that kind of self-conscious and purposeful investigation of the subject.”

—John L. Jackson, Ph.D.

“The questions that came directly from the audience commentary at the end of each discussion panel challenged me on a number of levels. One of the audience participants said: ‘Why do white folks hate black folks? This is what we talk about around the dinner table. How can you help me answer that question?’ In that moment, I realized the limits of my own ability to effectively address that question. Still, I think that anything that opens up discussions on race on all kinds of levels, is going to be the most effective tool in dealing with race and racism as folks witness it in their everyday lives.”

—Janet Monge, Ph.D.

Public Evening Classes

Our goal was to provide discussion tools for families and teachers to help in examining beliefs about race, science, and justice in a series of five free evening classes, for those aged 14 and up, on the topics of the history of race and science; biomedicine and race; genetics and race; geography, culture, and race; and violence and race. Each class began with an overview taught by a Penn graduate student and a workshop highlighting skeletal remains from the Morton Collection, followed by a panel discussion, with moderators from public radio WHYY and African American talk radio WURD. All sessions ended with audience interaction. Discussions on race were presented through the lenses of anthropology, biology, genetics, sociology, philosophy, economics, criminology, and law.

Penn’s Camra Initiative, an interdisciplinary collective of researchers and educators committed to participatory, experimental media-making, engaging in projects and workshops that use multimodal representation to push knowledge production in new directions, partnered with the Museum to create a short documentary film that was based on the classes. This film, broken into five chapters, was presented in the event “When Museums Tackle Tough Topics: Race, Science, and the Penn Museum” in May 2017.

A Growing Audience

Photo of audience
Participants in each class were given worksheets providing a glossary for terminology used in the classes, relevant articles on the topics, and blank notecards for questions.

The five classes and film event drew 704 attendees into the Museum, many of whom had never been to an event here before, and 578 computers tuned in for the livestream feature, including several from churches and community groups broadcasting to a roomful of people. By the end of May 2017, almost 10,000 people had viewed videos of the classes posted on our website and YouTube.

A Public Classroom website housed additional reading materials, and other online resources were developed, including age-appropriate teaching tools for use with younger children. These resources were distributed for free to schools, community centers, other museums, and universities. For more information about the Public Classroom, including videos and resources, visit the program’s website: https://www.penn.museum/sites/pmclassroom/.

Photo of experts
Dr. Quayshawn Spencer, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Penn (left), makes a point about genetics and race as Dr. Fatimah Jackson, Professor of Biology at Howard University (center), and moderator Mike Adams, Digital News Director at WHYY (right) look on.

“In a context in which discussions of race, racial discrimination, and anti-black state violence were dominating the headlines, we sought to engage people in thoughtful discourse about the history behind contemporary issues, and the various ways in which this history manifests…

The classrooms were simultaneously provocative, illuminating, and moving as different audience members shared their perspectives, questions, and ideas. This is just the sort of programming that will build the Museum as a space for public conversation on vexing issues.”

—Deborah Thomas, Ph.D.

KATE QUINN is Director of Exhibitions and Public Programs at the Penn Museum.

The Public Classroom @ Penn Museum: Science and Race–History, Use, and Abuse was organized by Kate Quinn, Director of Exhibitions and Public Programs and Dr. Janet Monge, Associate Curator-in-Charge and Keeper of Collections, Physical Anthropology Section. Assistance was provided by Dr. Deborah Thomas, R. Jean Brownlee Term Professor of Anthropology; and Dr. John Jackson, Richard Perry University Professor and Dean of the School of Social Policy & Practice, both at the University of Pennsylvania. Arjun Shankar, Ph.D., Post-doctoral Fellow, School of Social Policy and Practice, led the film team. A feature-length film is planned for release in 2018.

Cite This Article

Quinn, Kate. "When Museums Tackle Tough Topics." Expedition Magazine 59, no. 2 (September, 2017): -. Accessed April 13, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/when-museums-tackle-tough-topics/


This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

Report problems and issues to digitalmedia@pennmuseum.org.