Penn Museum apologizes for its Morton Collection of more than 1,000 human skulls

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Penn Museum has apologized for the skull collection assembled by Samuel George Morton (above), a 19th century scientist

Penn Museum has apologized for the skull collection assembled by Samuel George Morton (above), a 19th century scientist

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has apologized for its controversial Morton Collection of more than 1,300 human skulls, including those of slaves, assembled by a race-obsessed 19th century scientist who used them to support his white superiority theories.

The prestigious museum in Philadelphia issued the apology on Monday, saying it would repatriate the collection assembled in the 1800s by Samuel George Morton for reburial around the world.

‘The Penn Museum and the University of Pennsylvania apologize for the unethical possession of human remains in the Morton Collection,’ said Penn Museum Director Christopher Woods in a statement. 

‘It is time for these individuals to be returned to their ancestral communities, wherever possible, as a step toward atonement and repair for the racist and colonial practices that were integral to the formation of these collections,’ added Woods.

The prestigious museum in Philadelphia issued the apology on Monday, saying it would repatriate the Morton Collection of skulls for reburial around the world

The prestigious museum in Philadelphia issued the apology on Monday, saying it would repatriate the Morton Collection of skulls for reburial around the world

The Morton Collection of more than 1,300 human skulls, including those of slaves, was assembled by a race-obsessed scientist who used them to support his racial theories

The Morton Collection of more than 1,300 human skulls, including those of slaves, was assembled by a race-obsessed scientist who used them to support his racial theories

A curator is seen with skulls from the Morton Collection. 'The Penn Museum and the University of Pennsylvania apologize for the unethical possession of human remains in the Morton Collection,' said Penn Museum Director Christopher Woods

A curator is seen with skulls from the Morton Collection. ‘The Penn Museum and the University of Pennsylvania apologize for the unethical possession of human remains in the Morton Collection,’ said Penn Museum Director Christopher Woods

Woods said that the museum ‘will also reassess our practices of collecting, stewarding, displaying, and researching human remains.’ 

The collection was assembled in the first half of the 19th century by Morton, a physician and natural scientist who attempted to show that white people have a larger cranial capacity than other races.

Morton believed that different races of humans were actually different species, and his dubious work was used to justify slavery and white supremacy.

Penn Museum’s report follows a report issued last week by a committee assigned to study the issue, which prominently cited the in-custody death of George Floyd last May as a motivation for reassessing the collection.

The report recommended that the museum apologize for the collection and move to repatriate the remains.

‘An initial phase of rigorous evaluation was critical for ensuring an ethical and respectful process around repair,’ Woods explained on Monday.

‘As we move into implementation, the museum will immediately begin the process of working with local communities to understand their wishes for repatriation,’ he said.

Morton believed that different races of humans were actually different species, and his dubious work was used to justify slavery and white supremacy

Morton believed that different races of humans were actually different species, and his dubious work was used to justify slavery and white supremacy

In the 1800s, Morton obsessively measured the volume of the skulls, and claimed in his writings that people of European descent had the largest average skull volume

In the 1800s, Morton obsessively measured the volume of the skulls, and claimed in his writings that people of European descent had the largest average skull volume

Morton used his data as evidence to support his racist theories. He described the white race as 'distinguished by the facility with which it attains the highest intellectual endowments'

Morton used his data as evidence to support his racist theories. He described the white race as ‘distinguished by the facility with which it attains the highest intellectual endowments’

The museum will now explore options for reburial of some of the remains in a historically black Philadelphia cemetery.

‘There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to handling repatriation and reburial in any circumstance,’ Woods said. ‘Each case is unique and deserves its own consideration. This is incredibly sensitive work.’ 

‘And while we all desire to see the remains of these individuals reunited with their ancestral communities as quickly as possible, it is essential not to rush but to proceed with the utmost care and diligence. As we confront a legacy of racism and colonialism, it is our moral imperative to do so,’ he added. 

Penn Museum will also move to quickly hire a ‘BIPOC bioanthropologist’ for a new full-time faculty position. BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous, or People Of Color.

The Morton Collection has generated controversy for decades. In the 1800s, Morton obsessively measured the volume of the skulls, and claimed in his writings that people of European descent had the largest average skull volume, which he believed was correlated with brain size and intelligence.

Morton used his data as evidence to support his racist theories. In his books, he described the white race as ‘distinguished by the facility with which it attains the highest intellectual endowments’. 

Native Americans he described as ‘averse to cultivation, and slow in acquiring knowledge; restless, revengeful, and fond of war, and wholly destitute of maritime adventure.’ 

Morton's theories were wildly popular during his life, embraced by supporters of slavery, and went on to form the nucleus of many later 'scientific racism' theories

Morton’s theories were wildly popular during his life, embraced by supporters of slavery, and went on to form the nucleus of many later ‘scientific racism’ theories

Author Stephen Jay Gould argued that Morton twisted his data collection to fit his theories, but other studies found that Morton's measurement data was essentially correct

Author Stephen Jay Gould argued that Morton twisted his data collection to fit his theories, but other studies found that Morton’s measurement data was essentially correct

The museum will now explore options for reburial of some of the remains in a historically black Philadelphia cemetery

The museum will now explore options for reburial of some of the remains in a historically black Philadelphia cemetery

People of African descent he described as ‘joyous, flexible, and indolent’ adding that ‘the many nations which compose this race present a singular diversity of intellectual character, of which the far extreme is the lowest grade of humanity’.

His theories were wildly popular during his life, embraced by supporters of slavery, and went on to form the nucleus of many later ‘scientific racism’ theories.

In his 1981 book The Mismeasure Of Man, popular scientist Stephen Jay Gould argued that Morton’s ‘unconscious bias’ had caused him to wildly distorted his data to fit his theories.

However later studies, including one in 2011 authored by six anthropologists, argued that Gould had himself misrepresented the facts, and that Morton’s skull-measurement data was essentially correct.

The 2011 study has faced its own criticism, with some noting that several authors were connected to Penn Museum, and the matter has continued to draw controversy. 

The Morton Collection is one of the largest skeletal collections in America, and had continued to draw interest from researchers even in modern times.

Who was Samuel George Morton? 

Samuel George Morton, born in Philadelphia in 1799, was an American physician and natural scientist who believed that different races had separate origins and were essentially distinct species.

Morton graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland, and went on to practice medicine in Philadelphia. He taught anatomy at UPenn’s college of medicine, which he helped found.

Morton is best known for his obsessive worldwide pursuit of human skulls, and in his lifetime amassed a collection of more than 1,000 skulls.

He used the collection to collect data on skull volume, and claimed that the average volume varied by race. Morton claimed that people of European descent had the biggest brains, Native Americans were in the middle, and Africans had the smallest brains.  

Samuel George Morton, born in Philadelphia in 1799, was an American physician and natural scientist who tried to prove racial differences in intelligence

Samuel George Morton, born in Philadelphia in 1799, was an American physician and natural scientist who tried to prove racial differences in intelligence

Morton used his data as evidence to support his racist theories. In his books, he described the white race as ‘distinguished by the facility with which it attains the highest intellectual endowments’. 

Native Americans he described as ‘averse to cultivation, and slow in acquiring knowledge; restless, revengeful, and fond of war, and wholly destitute of maritime adventure.’ 

People of African descent he described as ‘joyous, flexible, and indolent’ adding that ‘the many nations which compose this race present a singular diversity of intellectual character, of which the far extreme is the lowest grade of humanity’.

His theories were wildly popular during his life, embraced by supporters of slavery, and went on to form the nucleus of many later ‘scientific racism’ theories.

In his 1981 book The Mismeasure Of Man, popular scientist Stephen Jay Gould argued that Morton’s ‘unconscious bias’ had caused him to wildly distorted his data to fit his theories.

However later studies, including one in 2011 authored by six anthropologists, argued that Gould had himself misrepresented the facts, and that Morton’s skull-measurement data was essentially correct.

The 2011 study has faced its own criticism, with some noting that several authors were connected to Penn Museum, and the matter has continued to draw controversy.  

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