The University of Pennsylvania is pushing forward with the reburial of at least 13 Black Philadelphians’ skulls, whose bones have been housed for nearly two centuries in an infamous anthropological collection that was used to defend white supremacy in the years leading up to the American Civil War.
The ancient African-American Eden cemetery is where the skulls will be reinterred, and the Ivy League university has filed a petition with the Philadelphia orphans’ court to get permission to do so. In the wake of the racial reckoning following the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, if the event is held, it will amount to one of the most significant restorative processes for Black Americans.
Other museums and collectors in the U.S. and around the world will be closely monitoring the attempt. Bone Rooms author Samuel Redman remarked, “This is a significant moment, it opens the door to much wider conversations about these collections.” Bone Rooms explores the frequently gloomy history of the preservation of human bones.
The university’s Penn Museum, which houses anthropological and archaeological relics, is where the 13 skulls are being kept. They are a part of the Morton Cranial Collection, a sizable collection of skulls that the museum obtained in 1966.
Penn has faced increasing pressure over the past few years to address the historical injustices that are reflected in the Morton Collection. Students at the university started the Penn & Slavery Project in 2017 to investigate links between the school and slavery, which sparked demands for the repatriation of the enslaved people’s remains in the collection.
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 were put into storage by the Penn Museum in July 2020, following the summer of unrest after the police killing of George Floyd. These skulls were originally from that plantation in Cuba.
The next year, with the assistance of an advisory committee made up of prominent members of the neighborhood, the museum’s newly appointed director, Christopher Woods, apologized publicly for the improper possession of human remains and started the procedure for their repatriation and burial.
Top museums around the world with sizable collections of human remains, some of which were inspired by Morton, are under similar rising pressure to address the moral dilemmas. They include the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, the Field Museum in Chicago, the Smithsonian in Washington, which houses tens of thousands of human remains, and the Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.
Penn intends to host an interfaith memorial service during the reburial at Eden Cemetery, should permission be given by the orphans’ court, which is in charge of managing the remains of people who are either unidentified or unclaimed. On the university campus, a memorial stone will also be erected, and a community-led open forum will be organized.