A Pennsylvania museum apologized for collecting the skulls of Black Americans, saying it will return the remains to their communities

  • Philadelphia’s Penn Museum owns skulls belonging to Black Americans and slaves from Cuba.
  • The museum said Monday it will return them to their communities, starting with Black Pennsylvanians.
  • Some skulls will be buried at a “historically Black Philadelphia cemetery,” the museum said.
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A museum in Pennsylvania has apologized for collecting the skulls of Black Americans and promised to return the remains to their communities.


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Over the past year, the Penn Museum in Philadelphia has faced demonstrations over its collection of 1,300 human crania housed in The Morton Collection.

Among the remains are the skulls of at least 12 Black Philadelphians and dozens of enslaved people from Africa to Cuba, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

On Monday, Christopher Woods, the museum’s director, said in a statement that the museum would relinquish control of the skulls.

“The Penn Museum and the University of Pennsylvania apologize for the unethical possession of human remains in the Morton Collection,” he said.

“It is time for these individuals to be returned to their ancestral communities, wherever possible, as a step toward atonement and repair for the racist and colonial practices that were integral to the formation of these collections.”

The Morton Collection is named after Samuel G. Morton, a 19th-century Philadelphia physician and anthropologist who collected hundreds of skulls to compare the brain sizes of different races. His research had been cited as evidence that Europeans “were intellectually, morally, and physically superior to all other races,” the museum said.

The decision to repatriate the skulls follows the publication of an internal report on April 8 that said the museum “should return ancestors to their descendants and communities of origin whenever possible.”

The collection of skulls was removed from public view in July 2020, The New York Times reported.

In 2019, students at the University of Pennsylvania, which oversees the Penn Museum, found that 55 skulls housed in the collection came from people enslaved in Havana, Cuba, or the US.

Woods said it would be much harder to return the skulls of those enslaved in Cuba.

“This one is going to be a bit more complicated because, for a lot of these individuals, the records are terrible or nonexistent,” he told the Inquirer.

“It’s uncertain which actually have to go back to Cuba, or probably more likely, West Africa.”

Police Free Penn, a student group that had called on the museum to relinquish control of the skulls, told the Inquirer that it was a step in the right direction, saying “we’re happy with this commitment to return all remains.”

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