Publication Date

September 15, 2022

Perspectives Section



Public History

In 2010, I found myself writing a history dissertation while seated at a desk next to a preserved human leg. While researching what would eventually become my first book, I encountered a whole range of remarkable and deeply unsettling situations, but perhaps no city with a legacy of human remains collecting hit me quite as hard as Philadelphia. Since that time, the city and its storied institutions have faced an important reckoning as it relates to historical medical and anthropological collections. These collections, largely built in the 19th and early 20th centuries, reflect scientific racism’s profound influence, ideas that pushed people to believe humanity could be divided into an ethnic or racial hierarchy—an imagined reality where white men always came out on top.

Black and white illustration of hands holding calipers.

Museums that hold collections of human remains from the past face ethical questions today. Elihu Vedder, Studies of Hands Holding Calipers, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, CC0. Image cropped.

Scholars, museum curators, and the public are beginning to fully grasp the vast and diverse array of human remains collections in cities like Philadelphia and how they got there. The century-old human leg I briefly encountered was part of a sizable and historically significant medical collection at the Mütter Museum in downtown Philadelphia. Collectors of all kinds, motivated by a range of factors from scientific curiosity to profit and trophy hunting, all actively gathered remains for decades. Museums in the United States continue to hold hundreds of thousands of human remains in their collections.

The oldest university in Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania (Penn), was established in 1740, with a medical school following in 1765. Penn did not start to acquire human remains for “scientific” purposes until later. The school established the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (the Penn Museum) in 1887.

The Penn Museum eventually amassed one of the largest collections of anthropological and archaeological materials in the nation and became a leading institution in coordinating global archaeological expeditions for the benefit of American scholars. The museum also made occasional selective purchases. This included 42 boxes sold to dealers by the Wetherill family, the famed “explorers” and looters of ancient Indigenous sites in the American Southwest, including the cliff dwellings around Mesa Verde. The human remains the Wetherills absconded with included mummified bodies that were first displayed at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago before being offered for sale. A book serving as a guide to the fair and documenting the temporary exhibits reads, “The visitor was introduced to a large exhibit of the mummified remains and domestic relics of the Cliff-Dwellings, the oldest semi-civilization of the Western Continent.” The fair’s exhibit was “so skillfully arranged that the visitor to the displays seemed to be standing in the very midst of the real ruins, and shaking hands, as it were, with the dusty remains of a people who played their part in the drama of the world more than a thousand years ago.”

The human remains the Wetherills absconded with included mummified bodies that were first displayed at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.

The boxes shipped to Philadelphia included at least 86 individuals, or ancestors, as many Indigenous communities in the American Southwest understand them. The university soon put the mummified remains, including those of both infants and adults, on public display at the museum. “Naturally,” one Philadelphia newspaper reported in 1895, “the most interesting portions of the collection to the average visitor are the exhumed bodies of the wonderful people themselves.” Another newspaper imagined the bodies as “holding a reception” at the exhibition’s opening. The Philadelphia media concluded, “Many prolonged visits will be required in the Museum to enable one to become even moderately familiar with all the manifestations of primitive life and industry displayed in the collection.”

The Penn Museum also acquired what is arguably the most well-known human skull collection ever assembled, those gathered by physician Samuel George Morton (1799–1851). Morton’s writing about race proved highly influential. Morton sourced remains, especially skulls, from around the globe, writing about them in the book Crania Americana (1839). His collection of nearly 1,000 skulls was largely kept intact. The collection was subsequently relocated from the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia to the Penn Museum in 1966. For years, the Penn Museum kept the collection mostly behind the scenes in storage as museum curators frequently assumed, despite their previous popularity, that the public would mostly be reviled by the sight of so many human skeletons on display. During the summer of 2022, the museum announced its intent to rebury 13 of the Black Philadelphians previously held in the Morton collection at Penn.

In her masterful 2010 book, The Skull Collectors: Race, Science, and America’s Unburied Dead, historian Ann Fabian details how Morton and others used the human skull to advance theories of racial difference, gesturing toward imagined racial hierarchies in ways that served to uphold the era’s predominant racial ideologies. Not only did the Morton collection work to help prop up scientific racism in the 19th century; scholars later returned to the collection to debate it anew in the 20th century. Prominent authors examined the Morton collection with antiracist aims, most notably Stephen Jay Gould in The Mismeasure of Man (1981), a famed intellectual takedown of Morton’s original ideas that is still debated.

Once such collections were established, they continued to grow over time. Museums focused on medicine, anthropology, and natural history acquired human remains through a wide variety of sporadic means during the 19th and 20th centuries. Some came to museums following archaeological digs, but an extraordinary number were sent to museums following looting and accidental discoveries as well as via exchanges. In researching and writing Bone Rooms, I came to understand that scholars have overemphasized the “professional” avenues that pushed remains to museum shelves, while underestimating the shockingly large history of “amateur” collecting, accidental discoveries, and looting, all contributing to the largest collections of human remains in the world, including those in Philadelphia.

Flash forward to 1990. The passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) required two important actions. Cultural institutions were mandated to inventory their collections and, in select cases, return or repatriate these remains to their descendent communities. While NAGPRA represents an important step forward, recent estimates suggest that only about 30 percent of eligible human remains have been returned. Problems connect to administrative challenges, costs, and the sheer complexity of working through hundreds of thousands of ancestral remains and sacred objects housed in museum collections across the country. Some individuals at Penn, Harvard University, and the Smithsonian have taken action in response to these problems, opening up new platforms for discussion and moving toward change.

Despite this recent history, many were shocked and appalled to learn about the recent use of remains in a livestreamed class at Penn. In the spring of 2021, a media firestorm emerged when articles from Billy Penn and the Philadelphia Inquirer pointed to the use of human remains in an online biological anthropology course, which drew on the collections at the Penn Museum. During at least one lecture, the instructor used the remains of a victim of a 1985 police action. The 12-year-old girl had been residing with the members of MOVE, a Black liberation group that came under heavy police scrutiny, ultimately leading to the violent deaths of 11 individuals when the police bombed the group’s residence, starting a fire that destroyed the surrounding area. Following a brief investigation, the remains were shuttled off to the coroner’s office before being turned over to the museum for reasons that remain unclear.

These remains represent a physical manifestation of past mistakes lingering in colonialism’s large wake.

The 2021 uproar showed how the historical collection of human remains, and their ongoing use in teaching, display, education, and research, is a point of real and profound hurt for many individuals and communities. These remains represent a physical manifestation of past mistakes lingering in colonialism’s large wake, as well as the many desires maintained by those originally bringing these vast collections together. We can do better in working to understand human anatomy and history without the ongoing exploitation of the many remains touched by the legacies of scientific racism and colonialism. Steps forward need to be considered carefully and in close collaboration and consultation with descendant communities. In many more cases than have taken place to date, remains should be justly returned through repatriation.

A wave of major media stories surrounding the Morton collection, the bodies of the formerly enslaved, and MOVE bombing victims has brought the issue of museum collections of human remains back to the spotlight. The Penn Museum recently issued a statement responding to this history and rejecting scientific racism. Others continue to advocate that they have a right to study historical human remains collections, including Native American ancestral remains. Momentum is clearly on the side of those calling for change, but it is yet to be seen whether the recent attention will translate into sustained or permanent action on the part of museums.

Despite this added attention, few fully understand the scope of these collections—they include hundreds of thousands of remains gathered from across North America and around the world. In their recent “Statement on Human Remains,” the Penn Museum estimated its collections include 12,000 individuals. Not only is our contemporary treatment of Native American remains incomplete; we have also failed to fully grapple with the fact that the remains of thousands of Black Americans, including some who suffered under chattel slavery, are presently held in museum collections. Other remains gathered for these collections originated from prisons, almshouses, and hospitals for the poor, all locations where the remains of the recently deceased could be easily exploited.

Historian Daina Ramey Berry and anthropologists Justin Dunnavant, Delande Justinvil, and Chip Colwell have rightly called for an “African American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act,” federal legislation to address the problem of Black remains held in US museums and medical collections. But what about Indigenous remains collected from elsewhere around the world? Existing federal legislation is silent about the moral and ethical implications of these collections. What about the remains of so many others exploited primarily because of their socioeconomic position? We should strive to imagine more expansive solutions to this problem, solutions that truly reflect the vast complexity of the many issues at hand. Museums should be pressed to do more, and we can begin by better understanding the history behind these collections.

Samuel J. Redman is a professor of history and director of the public history program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He tweets @samueljredman.

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