The Samuel George Morton Collection as Case Study
The Samuel George Morton collection is representative of many of these challenges. Morton collected over 900 skulls, and a few plaster casts of skulls from other collections, from 1830 until his death in 1851. All but a few dozen from Philadelphia were sent to him by colleagues, from all continents. Notably, Morton collected the remains of approximately sixty enslaved Black people from the United States and Caribbean, among the largest historical collections of the remains of documented enslaved people held in any museum. Indigenous ancestors from across the Americas make up approximately one third of the total collection. Many others derive from settler/colonial contexts in Australia, New Zealand, Liberia, India, South Africa, and beyond. The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, where the collection was housed and which purchased his collection from his widow, added hundreds of skulls decades after his death. What is often referred to as “the Morton collection” at the Penn Museum includes all these remains from the Academy, transferred to Penn in the 1960s. Morton published “catalogues” of his enlarging collection from 1840 to 1849, including numbers assigned to each skull, a racial categorization, occasional details about the individual’s identity or cause of death, cranial measurements, and acknowledgement of the collector who added to Morton’s cabinet. In addition to the “specimen numbers” written or pasted onto each skull, histories of the deceased were occasionally inscribed on the bones themselves. Another catalogue was written five years after Morton’s death by the next curator, James Aitken Meigs. No published list of remains collected after the mid 1850s exists, and the Academy’s register (partially reproduced in the Open Research Scan Archive, see below) of acquisitions is relatively scant on information. While over one thousand items of Morton’s incoming correspondence, accompanying and detailing the origins of many of the skulls sent to him, are preserved at a few Philadelphia archives, including the American Philosophical Society and Library Company of Philadelphia, almost no correspondence describing remains acquired after Morton’s death has been recovered.