ON FEBRUARY 13, 2023, a Pennsylvania court decided the fate of cranial remains from 20 Black Philadelphians that have been kept in the basement of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
The court granted Penn Museum’s request to bury the remains—without requiring the university to identify the deceased and notify their descendants. According to the judge’s decree, resulting from this unprecedented court process, the burial must occur by February 13, 2024.
Some of these individuals may have been enslaved during their lifetimes. We witness in this process that the Ivy League university has turned them into property once again, referring to their bones as “charitable assets” during a status conference one week before the hearing.
The 20 crania that Penn seeks to bury are part of the Penn Museum’s Morton Cranial Collection, which contains the cranial remains of between 1,300 and 1,600 people. The majority were collected in the 1830s and 1840s by Penn alum Dr. Samuel George Morton, one of the founders of physical anthropology.
For generations, Penn has exerted control over these and other ancestors’ remains through theft, display, and research-based extraction. We seek a consent-based process controlled by descendants and descendant community members, a process we call “Finding Ceremony.”