The Dead and Decolonial Praxis: Reconstructing Histories and Imagining Repair

These details demonstrate the challenges of reconstructing histories, and in identifying descendant communities, from incomplete and obscured archival traces. Although Morton’s documentation is reasonably extensive for the time, only in a few cases were the names or detailed life histories of individuals whose remains were taken into the collection known or recorded. Some remains were excavated from centuries-old graves, others taken from those whom the collector knew in life. Morton writing the “specimen number” directly on most skulls in his collection left a mark of practices of scientific objectification and classification. It has also meant that many remains in the Morton collection can still be associated with their documentation, identified by a unique number. Such is not the case for every collection; in some cases, identifying numbers pasted onto bone or affixed with a tag have not survived to the present, effectively severing these remains from their archives.

Through its compliance with NAGPRA, since the 1990s, the Penn Museum has repatriated over 120 Indigenous ancestors (see federal notices). Many of these are from the Morton collection. In 2017, the museum produced its first Human Remains Statement, which did not address questions of descendant community involvement or outline processes of repatriation beyond NAGPRA. The statement does not cover human remains present at the museum but not accessioned by it, and leaves all discretionary power around research, teaching, and display with the museum. In 2020, responding to protest in and outside the university, the museum removed its display of hundreds of crania from the Morton collection, including the remains of enslaved people, in glass-fronted cabinets in an anthropology classroom. It also committed to the repatriation of the remains of enslaved individuals in the collection in August 2020. In April 2021, following a months-long internal review, the museum expanded consideration of repatriation to the entirety of the Morton collection in a report. The fate of other ancestors at the Penn Museum remains indeterminate, and, at present, detailed plans for the inclusion of those beyond the museum, including descendant and local communities, in decision-making processes have not been disclosed.


Although there is no comprehensive inventory of human remains at the Penn Museum, various documents, databases, and partial inventories do indicate the scope and origins of many of the collection. 

Among historical published documents, these include the last published catalogue of the Morton collection from the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and the last published catalogue of the Wistar and Horner Museum. Importantly, not all remains from either of these collections were transferred to the Penn Museum, remains from the Wistar Institute (including those deriving from “Wistar and Horner Museum”) are on loan at Penn and not accessioned into the Penn Museum’s collection. Moreover, the information presented in these publications must be critically assessed in relation to the incomplete and sometimes inaccurate concepts and facts that collectors like Morton, Meigs, Wistar, Horner, and others employed to categorize and list the human remains they amassed. 

A contemporary source about the Penn Museum’s Physical Anthropology Section collections is the Open Research Scan Archive (ORSA) of the Penn Museum, which catalogues remains at the Penn Museum and other institutions which have been CT scanned since the early 2000s. Note that some ORSA entries include images of human remains. This database is neither comprehensive of Penn’s human remains collection, nor does it include entries exclusive to Penn; it includes listings of human and non-human primate remains from other institutions, such as the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

(Note that some links below may direct to images of human remains; also note that these links are demonstrative, not comprehensive.) Penn Museum sponsored or affiliated archaeological expeditions which have produced human remains transferred to the museum include those in what is today Guatemala, Egypt, Iran (also here), Iraq (also here), Jordan (also here), Palestine, Peru, and across the United States, as well as others. Some human remains  may be curated in sections of the Penn Museum other than the Physical Anthropology Section. For example, most mummified remains from Egypt are curated in the Egyptian Section, rather than the Physical Anthropology Section. Some of these are listed in the Digital Collections of the Penn Museum, although remains from the Physical Anthropology Section are not. Some artifacts incorporate human remains, but they may not be included in the Physical Anthropology Section or estimates of the number of individuals whose remains are at the Penn Museum.

The Dead and Decolonial Praxis: Reconstructing Histories and Imagining Repair