Finding Ceremony for Our Ancestors Held in Penn Museum’s “Morton Cranial Collection”

Dr. Lyra D. Monteiro
4 min readJan 28, 2023

--

Written by Abdul-Aliy A. Muhammad & Dr. Lyra D. Monteiro

Barely one year after we learned that the Penn Museum had the remains of two children murdered in the 1985 MOVE bombing, the University of Pennsylvania tried to quickly and quietly bury the remains of over a dozen other Black Philadelphians whose bones they had kept in the basement of the Penn Museum for decades. Recently, the museum acknowledged that their research showed they actually have the remains of 20 Black Philadelphians in the Morton Cranial Collection.

The University of Pennsylvania has petitioned Philadelphia County’s Orphans’ Court to get permission to bury the crania that an esteemed Penn Medicine alumnus had, in their words unethically acquired. At a hearing this Thursday, February 2, the public has a chance to support us in stopping this.

Penn has exerted control over these and other ancestors’ remains through theft, display, and research-based extraction; we seek a consent-based process controlled by descendants and descendant community members, a process that we are calling “Finding Ceremony.”

Dr. Samuel George Morton’s violent collection of over a thousand skulls has gotten attention in recent years, when it came to light that the Penn Museum had about 500 of them on display in glass cabinets in a small classroom. While “craniologists” like Morton were largely concerned with amassing and measuring “racial types,” other physicians also plundered the disenfranchised dead of their own cities. Both practices were, ultimately, about collecting trophies of heteropatriarchal white supremacy.

The trafficking of remains belonging to other people’s ancestors dominates Morton’s correspondence. On April 7, 1837, Bostonian Dr. John Collins Warren, the father of surgical education in the United States, and the first Dean of Harvard’s Medical School, wrote to his Philadelphia colleague, Morton, asking “Have you the Guanche? If not, I can let you have a head.” A month later, Warren sent the “head,” along with a brief anecdote about how his friend found and stole it for him.

Today, that skull of an indigenous person from the Canary Islands, Dr. Warren’s gift to Dr. Morton, sits on a wooden shelf in an old cabinet in the basement of the Penn Museum. On those same shelves in those same cabinets sit other crania, of people from other parts of the world, some of whose skulls Morton made casts of and sent to John Collins Warren in 1849. Today, four of Morton’s plaster replicas of stolen heads — representing what he claimed to be “typical” German, Graeco-Egyptian, Ancient Egyptian, and Malay skulls — are part of the Warren Anatomical Museum at Harvard University.

Penn’s desired control is part of a much larger pattern of white supremacist abuse that was perpetrated by the leading scientists of the 19th century. Warren and Morton are just two examples of the depraved history of trafficking in the skulls of our ancestors as part of their racial science project to “prove” the superiority of the white race. This laid the groundwork for the way that race operates in the present.

Juxtapose Harvard’s September 2022 report examining its racist collections of human remains, to Penn’s petition. Harvard’s report foregrounds the need to perform archival research on each possibly enslaved individual, and to identify their descendants before taking further steps. Beyond that, they recognize descendant communities as a valid stewardship entity. Penn, on the other hand, has done nothing but rush a process without legitimate community input, and claim that they are unable to do archival research on the individuals that they wish to bury.

In response to the historical subjugation and desecration of ancestral remains by Penn, Harvard and other institutions, we propose a descendant community-controlled process called Finding Ceremony. When we say “finding ceremony,” we mean restoring the lineages of care, reverence and spiritual memory to the work of caring for our dead. We understand, as two members of descendant communities reflected in human collections at Penn, Harvard and elsewhere, that the colonial violence that situated our ancestors as collected and collective crania, means that our work is tied together. We undertake the work knowing that we won’t fully contend with the harm enacted on them over the centuries in which generations of their descendants, of those who might have remembered and honored them, have lived and died. This is due to the rupture caused by empire built on justifications ground out of our bones, based on racialized science.

Finding Ceremony will offer an intermediate space, a space of transition where our ancestors go from being defined as specimens in a scientific, museum “collection” and move towards finding ceremony and rest. Through the Orphans’ Court hearing, we hope to be able to begin this process–a spatial transfer as well as a spiritual shift–as we welcome the more than twenty Black Philadelphians currently in the “Morton Cranial Collection” into the Finding Ceremony Collection. These ancestors will be intentionally honored, cared for, and understood by connecting them with descendants and relatives who can give them rest.

Ultimately, Finding Ceremony is a reparationist project: this work must be funded by the same institutions that have perpetrated the harm over centuries, and who have demonstrated an unwillingness to do the labor that we now take on.

Abdul-Aliy Muhammad is an organizer and writer born and raised in West Philadelphia. @MxAbdulAliy

Dr. Lyra Monteiro is an anthropological archaeologist who teaches History, American Studies, and Africana Studies at Rutgers-Newark. @intersectionist

--

--

Dr. Lyra D. Monteiro

PhD: Archaeology & the Ancient World, Brown University; Prof: American Studies, History & Africana Studies, Rutgers-Newark; Co-Convener: Finding Ceremony