The Penn Museum and the Complexities of Human Remains Collections

The Penn Museum’s physical anthropology collection represents an important case study in the project of decolonizing and critically interrogating human remains collections in museums, both given the size and scope of its collection – including some 10,000 individuals in various states of preservation and anatomical completeness, from all over the world – and the reasonably extensive documentation that contextualizes these remains. Moreover, the acquisition and retention of human remains at the Penn Museum demonstrates many of the complex collection practices which have dispossessed Indigenous, enslaved, and other racialized and marginalized people of the bodily remains of their kin and ancestors.

The Samuel George Morton cranial collection of approximately 1,600 human skulls amassed in the mid-19th century is perhaps the most widely known of the Penn Museum’s human remains collections, but there are more, including hundreds of skulls and other bodily remains acquired from other Philadelphia medical and anthropological collections and the Penn Museum’s many sponsored archaeological expeditions. These expeditions spanned from the late 19th to the late 20th century, bringing the remains of many hundreds of individuals to the museum. However, founded in 1887, the Penn Museum as an institution postdates many of the collections it houses: for example, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia stored the Morton collection from the 1830s until 1966, when it then transferred these skulls to Penn on loan. In the 1990s, Penn formally accessioned them. Other collections, including the Wistar Institute’s anatomical collection, with origins in the late 18th century, remains on permanent loan at the Penn Museum. Not all collections at the Penn Museum originate from large, in-house expeditions, or were acquired as other institutions shed collections they no longer could or cared to steward. A box of fragmentary bones recovered from a brief archaeological excavation in Philadelphia in the mid-20th century, or a few skulls purchased at a World’s Fair over a century ago, are demonstrative of the quotidian instances of accession that incrementally built a necropolis. 

Differences in the status of remains at the museum, whether formally accessioned into the museum’s collections, held by inter-institutional loan, or retained for forensic analysis, as well as their varied circumstances of collection, demonstrate that human remains at the Penn Museum constitute a diverse assemblage. They are not reducible to a single narrative, and they invite a multiplicity of approaches aiming at contextualization and conceptualizing what decolonization and repair might mean. Moreover, the varied histories of over ten thousand individuals at the museum, the loss and movement of remains and their documentation through time, the dispersal of institutional records and memory, and the present absence of a full, public inventory of remains in the collection, all conspire to mean that tracing histories of ancestors at the Penn Museum presents a tremendous, if not insuperable, challenge.