How Penn Museum’s February 3 Burial Plan Ignores Decades of Museum and Archaeological Best Practice

Breaking down the Penn Museum’s ignorant misuse of decades of lessons with respectful return of the dead, in their plan to bury the ancestors of Black Philadelphians who’ve been held in their “Morton Cranial Collection.”

Dr. Lyra D. Monteiro
6 min readJan 27, 2024

Penn Museum’s plan to bury “20 Black Philadelphians” on February 3, 2024, is cleverly and cynically framed by a fundamental misuse of existing practices developed not by museums, but by the communities who have been impacted by museum theft and hoarding of their ancestors.

I can’t say if this misuse is due to misunderstanding — despite the offers of the leaders in the field to help them understand, including this powerful 2021 panel discussion in which Penn Museum Director (and expert in ancient Assyria) Chris Woods was offered an amazing education on stage by Black bioanthropologists who are leaders in this work: Michael Blakey, Rachel Watkins, Carlina De La Cova, and Joseph Jones:

Video of “The African Burial Ground: Lessons for the Morton Collection” with Christopher Woods, Michael Blakey, Rachel Watkins, Carlina De La Cova, and Joseph Jones, moderated by Deborah Thomas; October 2021.

I also can’t say if the misuse is due to willful distortion and cynical manipulation of almost-correct terminology so as to appear to be doing “the right thing,” as Director Chris Woods is so fond of claiming is his goal, when there are actually other reasons that motivate him and the museum and the university to want to rush this burial process.

This breakdown begins and ends with the very first thing that is wrong with Penn Museum’s approach — because after that wrong step, we need not debate the merits of the rest of their moves (their choice of burial location, the research they do and do not perform, etc. — even though there are many objections and concerns Finding Ceremony and others have raised about those issues as well).

NOTE: In what follows, I have generally avoided using the specialized terminology and other references, in the hopes that this is as accessible as possible. I am still developing this language, so am very appreciative of any feedback, suggestions, and questions:

  1. Penn Museum’s April 2021 promise to return over 1,300 skulls in the Morton Cranial Collection does not have any legal precedents to follow in the United States. Instead, there are two well-established models that are currently practiced in the United States, both dating to the early 1990s; and one guiding principle that animates both.
  2. Model #1 is a law that applies to human remains that are discovered in archaeological contexts or are already in museum collections. If human remains found in the collections of museum that receive federal funding can be associated with one or more federally recognized Native American tribes, or Native Hawaiian Organizations, the museum must reach out to those tribes (most of which now have offices specifically for this purpose) to determine what should be done with the human remains. Once the human remains are established to be relatives of the members of that tribe, it is entirely up to that tribe to determine what happens with them — the museum does not have a say in what happens with them.
  3. Every major museum in the United States is very familiar with Model #1.
  4. A structurally similar approach to Model #1, in that there is a clear “body of negotiation” that represents the descendants of the people whose remains are in the museum, is when a non-federally recognized Native American tribe, or a foreign government entity reaches out to a museum that is known to hold their ancestors and relatives, to request that they be returned. Major museums in the US are also familiar with this approach, although few respond positively to such requests.
  5. Model #2 is a practice developed in the context of remains of enslaved people of African descent, for whom records may not exist to define who their specific descendants are. This model was initially developed in archaeological contexts; unlike Native American graveyards, which are protected by law from being disturbed (in many cases), African American burials, including those of people who were enslaved, are routinely desecrated by construction projects. In such cases, instead of a formal tribal repatriation office speaking for the descendants, in Model #2 it is the “descendant community” who determines what happens to the remains. This concept has received a number of definitions over three decades of use, but ultimately, the “descendant community” or “Family Representative Committee” is comprised of those who consider themselves to be the descendants–biologically, culturally, spiritually, etc.–and who seek out the work of finding rest for their ancestors because it is of deep personal concern.
  6. Model #2 has rarely been applied at museums; museums very rarely acknowledge possession of the remains of people of African descent who were enslaved, and even less frequently are interested in returning the to community. But recent policy documents, including from Harvard and from Penn, express the need or intention to follow this model in the case of remains of people of African descendant, and others held in museum collections.
  7. The guiding principle that animates both of these Models is that the descendants and relatives get to decide what happens to the remains of their ancestors and family.
  8. In the case of the Morton Cranial Collection, the Penn Museum has already been subject to Model #1, by law, since 1990. It has designated staff who handle the return of human remains from the Morton Cranial Collection (and others collections of human remains) associated with federally recognized tribes.
  9. When, in April 2021, the Penn Museum committed to returning the entire “Morton Cranial Collection,” it claimed that it would use version of Model #1 to do so. It was unclear what this would mean, given how that structure is designed around engagement with existing government entities.
  10. However, in the first instance of “return,” which focused on Black Philadelphians, the director of the Penn Museum created what he referred to as a “Community Advisory Group.” The 14-member group first met in September 2021, and consisted of 5 high-level administrators at the university (including the museum director), and others who the director has described as “West Philadelphia civic and religious leaders,” and who he appointed to this committee. Its membership was secret, leaving no opportunity for community input.
  11. This is the body on whose supposed approval the Penn Museum petitioned Orphans Court, in May 2022, for permission to bury the remains of “at least 13” Black Philadelphians in the Morton Collection in Eden Cemetery, in secret.

And that is what Finding Ceremony has objected to all along — despite Penn’s their attempts to make this a disagreement about the location of the burials, or the research they perform:

how the Penn Museum seeks to control how our ancestors are laid to rest, after decades of abuse by the museum itself; building on the centuries-old theft of Penn Medicine alum Dr. Samuel George Morton. They do not get to decide how we honor those who they have desecrated.

After determining that there are Black Philadelphians in the Morton Cranial Collection, all further decision-making should rest with the Black Philadelphians Descendant Community Group, which has been organizing and meeting since May 2023 to care for these ancestors. They, not the Penn Museum’s director, gets to decide how best to offer them the ceremony and rest that they have been denied for as many as 200 years.

For the current status and concerns about Penn Museum’s February 3 Burial Plan, see this new piece from Science Magazine: Black community members, scientists object to plan to bury skulls from Philadelphia museum

For more of the context of the Orphans’ Court process that approved Penn Museum’s burial on February 3, 2024, and Finding Ceremony commitment to a descendant-led process of return for all of the ancestors that have been held in the Morton Cranial Collection,” see the May 2024 op ed I co-authored with my co-convener for Finding Ceremony, aAliy Muhammad, in the online anthropology magazine, SAPIENS: Finding Ceremony for Ancestors Held in the Penn Museum and Other Colonial Institutions

To understand more about the continuity between Morton’s racial science and the experimentation and treatment of his collection of cranial, see my recent article in International Journal of Cultural Property: Open access violence: Legacies of white supremacist data making at the Penn Museum, from the Morton Cranial Collection to the MOVE remains

For updates, join Finding Ceremony’s mailing list at this link; and follow @interesctionist on Twitter, and @MxAbdulAliy on Instagram, as well as the hashtags #FindingCeremony, #ReturnTheRemains, and #UnCollectOurAncestors.



Dr. Lyra D. Monteiro

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