Background:

The Morton Collection

The Samuel Morton Collection of Human Crania

The Samuel George Morton cranial collection at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology is one of the most famous collections of human skulls in the entire world. Its presence in Philadelphia is the result of the collecting activities of Samuel George Morton (1799–1851), a physician and scientist best known in his lifetime for his collection, measurement, and analysis of human skulls.

Although Morton was the pre-eminent American scientist of his time—an active participant in the vibrant medical and scientific community that spanned the Atlantic Ocean in the early 19th century—he is now remembered as the father of scientific racism. Between 1830 and 1851, Morton collected about 1,200 human skulls, sent to him from around the world. Morton divided the skulls into 6 geographic races: African, Asian, Australian, European, Native American, and Pacific Island. Morton measured several features on the skulls, most importantly cranial capacity. Moreover, he thought that these features corresponded to personality traits and intelligence, which he ranked. Morton’s work was used to justify arguments for slavery and racial inequality.

Some people would prefer to ignore the Collection. In the 1980s, evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould brought Morton back into the public eye with the publication of The Mismeasure of Man, accusing him of unconsciously manipulating his data to support racist ideologies. Today, Morton’s conclusions have been re-analyzed, and Gould’s accusations re-evaluated, to shed new light on this controversy and the role of science in the study of race and human diversity.

Despite its checkered past, the Morton Collection has scientific value for the study of human diversity. It is visited and studied by hundreds of researchers globally, and is considered one of the most important collections of human crania in the world. The Morton Collection has been used for many types of research and was instrumental in developing modern forensic anthropology.

In accordance with the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), passed by Congress in 1990, and out of respect for the beliefs of Native Americans regarding the bodies of their ancestors, the Penn Museum does not display or present images of any human remains from Native American people. The Penn Museum has currently repatriated over 100 crania of Native American ancestry from the Morton Collection to their tribes of origin, and is in the process of working together with tribes to determine their interest in repatriating the remainder of Native American crania in its collection.

The Morton Collection serves as the inspiration for the Public Classroom @ Penn Museum, Science and Race: History, Use, and Abuse.

The Samuel Morton Collection of Human Skulls at the Penn Museum

An overview of the collection featuring Janet Monge, Curator-in-Charge of the Physical Anthropology Section in the Penn Museum and Adjunct Professor in Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania. (video length 2:39)