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Morton Cranial Collection

Update on the Morton Collection

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, we formed a committee to evaluate the next steps towards repatriation or reburial of the crania of enslaved individuals within this Collection.

We are committed to working through this important process in an ethical and respectful manner as we bring together staff members from our Museum's Collections departments, NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) Committee, Penn graduate students, and representatives from our Diversity Committee.

Updates on this page will continue as progress is made. More background information on the Morton Cranial Collection is available here.

Samuel George Morton (1799-1851) was a Philadelphia-based physician, anatomy professor, and active member of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, where he conducted research into paleontology and human skulls. During his life, he achieved celebrity status for the research he conducted on his large collection of human skulls. However, leading scholars such as Charles Darwin regarded Morton as a second-rate scholar, who poorly documented his publications and made arbitrary assumptions. Modern examinations of Morton’s research have also found extensive errors in his work.

Morton’s research was taken as proof that Europeans, especially those of German and English ancestry, were intellectually, morally, and physically superior to all other races. Morton’s own views were broadly white supremacist, although he believed that some ethnic groups were superior to others, just as, for example, he believed that some groups of Native Americans were superior to others. Overall, Morton’s work contributed not only to the development of racial thought, but also to racist thought, as he suggested innate hierarchies among different races.

More than a century after his death, Morton’s Cranial Collection came into the possession of the Penn Museum, where it is now housed and accessible to scholars and students pursuing a wide range of research topics. This new interest in Morton, his research, and the ways that it was promoted by 19th-century white supremacists and pro-slavery advocates, has led the Penn Museum to develop this website to better inform the public about what Morton and his collection meant to the 19th century, and what it means to us today.

Sam Morton

Samuel George Morton, MD (1799-1851)

This website is not a memorial lauding Morton or his scholarship. Rather it is a destination for scholars or anyone else interested in the history of anthropology or race issues. This website includes frank information on Morton, the history of craniology, and the history of his cranial collection. It also reports on ongoing research focusing on the collection, with links to public engagement and other resources related to Morton and his cranial collection.

Morton’s collection is an exceptional historic resource, which sheds light on issues including transatlantic slavery, race supremacist ideology, the removal of Native Americans from the East Coast, and the 19th century’s often patronizing view of ancient Egypt and the indigenous civilizations of the Americas. These are important issues that have shaped the world we now live in. This website sets out to document how Morton and his collection contributed to, and were influenced by, many of the racially based injustices that characterized the era in which he lived.