The University of Pennsylvania is moving forward with the reburial of at least 13 Black Philadelphians’ skulls, whose bones have been housed in an infamous anthropological collection that was used to defend white supremacy in the years leading up to the American Civil War for nearly two centuries.
The skulls will be reburied in the ancient African-American Eden cemetery, and the Ivy League university has petitioned the Philadelphia orphans’ court for permission to do so. If the event takes place in the aftermath of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, it will be one of the most significant restorative processes for Black Americans.
Other museums and collectors in the United States and around the world will be keeping a close eye on the attempt. “This is a significant moment,” said Bone Rooms author Samuel Redman, “it opens the door to much broader conversations about these collections.” Bone Rooms delves into the often bleak history of human bone preservation.
The 13 skulls are housed in the university’s Penn Museum, which houses anthropological and archaeological relics. They are part of the Morton Cranial Collection, a large collection of skulls acquired by the museum in 1966.
Penn has come under increasing pressure in recent years to address the historical injustices reflected in the Morton Collection. In 2017, students at the university launched the Penn & Slavery Project to investigate links between the school and slavery, sparking calls for the repatriation of enslaved people’s remains held in the collection.
The Penn Museum put into storage a number of enslaved people’s skulls that came from a plantation in Cuba and were still on display in glass cabinets in a classroom in July 2020, following the summer of unrest following the police killing of George Floyd. These skulls were originally from that Cuban plantation.
The following year, with the help of an advisory committee comprised of prominent members of the neighborhood, the museum’s newly appointed director, Christopher Woods, publicly apologized for the improper possession of human remains and began the process of repatriation and burial.
Top museums around the world with large collections of human remains, some of which were inspired by Morton, are also under increasing pressure to address the moral quandaries. They include the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, the Field Museum in Chicago, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, which houses tens of thousands of human remains, and the University of California, Berkeley’s Hearst Museum of Anthropology.
Penn plans to hold an interfaith memorial service at Eden Cemetery during the reburial if permission is granted by the orphans’ court, which is in charge of managing the remains of people who are either unidentified or unclaimed. A memorial stone will also be erected on the university campus, and a community-led open forum will be organized.