History | August 8, 2022 6:00 am

University of Pennsylvania Plans to Rebury Part of Controversial Skull Collection

They're currently held by the Penn Museum

Penn Museum
The Penn Museum.
GordonMakryllos, CC BY-SA 4.0

The history of people talking about human skulls rarely involves anything good. On one hand, you have grave robbery; on the other, you have pseudoscience used to justify racism. And if you look back far enough in history, you’re likely to find some genuinely appalling things that were done to human remains, often at institutions that really should have known better. Sometimes, those historical wrongs have taken years to set right.

That’s the case with the Penn Museum at the University of Pennsylvania. As The Guardian reports, the university is seeking permission from the Philadelphia orphans’ court so that it can rebury 13 skulls belonging to Black residents of Philadelphia.

The museum currently houses Samuel George Morton’s collection of over 900 skulls, which Morton accumulated in the mid-19th century. Unfortunately, Morton used these skulls to endorse theories about white supremacy — some of which, The Guardian points out, were then used to defend slavery in the southern United States.

The process of reburying remains from the skull collection began in 2021, and — according to The Guardian — found the university working with organizations in the community to do so ethically. This group of 13 skulls is not the only one slated to be reburied — another 53 that originated in Cuba are set to return there.

This initiative is one of many underway in recent years to address historical wrongs on the part of various institutions. How this works out could have a significant effect on museums and universities around the world.