Morton Cranial Collection
Racism has no place in our Museum.
In the summer of 2020, the killing of George Floyd by police and the height of the Black Lives Matter movement ignited civil unrest that underscores the critical need for institutions like the Penn Museum to continuously examine the colonial and racist histories of their collecting practices. This page documents both the historical background of the Morton Collection as well as updates on the Museum’s work towards its repatriation and burial.
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.
We reject scientific racism that was used to justify slavery and the unethical acquisition of the remains of enslaved people.
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 Physical 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 burial
The Penn Museum and the University of Pennsylvania apologize for the unethical possession of human remains in the Morton Collection. It is time for these individuals to be returned to their ancestral communities, wherever possible, as a step toward atonement and repair.
As we confront our institutional history tied to colonialism and racist narratives, we are continuously working towards restorative practices. We take very 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.
We will continue to update this page as progress is made.
- 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 burial.
- 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 burial. 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 a total 20 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 the 20, 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 20 cranial remains show any evidence of a previous burial.
- In the Meigs and Morton catalogues, none of the 20 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 20 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.
Our Ongoing Commitment to Ethical Practices & 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
What is the Morton Cranial Collection?
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.
Who was Samuel George Morton?
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.
Where is the Morton Collection in the Museum?
The Collection is housed in storage in the Museum’s Physical 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 Physical 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.
How has the Morton Collection been used for research?
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.
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