What do we do about the human remains of enslaved Blacks in museum collections?
Updated: Jun 23, 2021
There are certain events that become cultural touchstones for a generation - events that pretty much everyone of a certain age remembers. For some earlier generations, these were events like D-Day or the murder of John Lennon. Where were you when JFK was shot?
I'm a Gen X kid, one of those cynical, latchkey wielding, forgotten middle-children of America society that you never hear about. When I think of the big events of my generation, I think of the Challenger Explosion - the excitement leading up to the launch and then disaster playing out live on televisions across the country. I think of the death of Kurt Cobain - I was in my mom's car on I-295 when I heard the news on WMMR (it was the afternoon, so probably from Pierre Robert), and I remember just being in shock and not fully believing it until I got home and heard the same news from Kurt Loder on MTV. (Seriously, could there be a more 90s recollection than that?)
And of course, I remember 9/11, the event that kicked off endless wars and the growing xenophobia in our country that we continue to fight to this day. I remember my friend telling me a plane hit the World Trade Center. I remember watching the news with him, confusion turning to horror as the second plane hit and we realized this wasn't some horrible accident. And I remember the day spent next to a pay phone (a pay phone!) as we attempted to reach friends and family that worked in lower Manhattan or traveled through it on their way to work as planes from the local air force base flew overhead on their way to and from the city's airspace. I was lucky - all my loved ones made it home that day. So many of my friends did not share that luck.
You get to thinking that these are universal events, that everyone your age shares these memories. That you all carry these emotions on some level.
A few years ago, thanks to social media, I learned that the MOVE Bombing is not the same type of cultural touchstone. Not among my Gen X peers. Not among Philly suburb kids. Based entirely on my informal observation of friends and former classmates: if you're white, you don't know MOVE (or didn't until recently). It's not a generational touchstone, and knowledge of it is dictated on some level by race and geography. Black kids in and around Philly know about MOVE; white kids in our schools and neighborhoods did not.
On a more personal note, an admittedly not-directly-impacted note, a small part of the world exploded for me that night - the part of my childhood that couldn't comprehend what was happening when I saw it on the TV in our family's den. In that dark room with the ugly orange couch and small color television showing a city on fire, comprehension just wasn't there. How? Why? What could someone possibly do to cause this devastation? When I watched the Challenger explode a year later, that at least was comprehensible if also horrible and tragic. Rockets explode. Shuttles crash. But police don't bomb city blocks. Right? Both are tragic events, but one is a tragedy comprehensible and of this world and the other is a tragedy constructed, intentional, born of hate and disrespect and fear and dehumanization.
On the most important levels, I have no connection to MOVE. My family were not and are not members. We did not live in Cobbs Creek or even in Philly. But on another level, I am connected to MOVE and impacted by MOVE. Just as we remember where we were when JFK was shot, or Kurt Cobain was found, or the towers fell, I remember MOVE. I am not claiming that what happened to MOVE impacts me, but I am sharing that I feel a deep hurt when I think of it, and when I think of the ongoing trauma that is visited on MOVE to this day.
So when I read that Penn Museum had human remains from the MOVE Bombing, and that they belonged to two children, my heart broke in a deep and profound way. There's something to be said for the repeated trauma that is inflicted on Black Americans by the state, and the damage that does to us when it happens again and again. Every time a Black person's murder at the hands of the police is replayed on social media. ("It's OK, it's newsworthy.") Every time a parent or sibling or child cries into a camera over that death. ("Human interest story.") And then, out of nowhere, bones of murdered children held in a museum, tossed in a cardboard box, treated like rubbish. Those babies don't deserve that treatment. Human beings don't deserve that treatment.
Were they not human beings to Penn Museum?
This is, of course, only part of the story. There's the issue of the Medical Examiner's office, the reported order to cremate the remains, apparently not carried out. There's the issue of conflicting reports regarding the location of the remains, their treatment, what the families were and were not told, and by whom, and when. It's a complicated story with so many twists and turns. I expect Netflix or HBO will option the rights soon and true crime groups on Facebook will be squealing with delight over the miniseries.
But the issue I want to underline here is - museums are in the business of collecting and studying and displaying human remains. And that practice really needs to be talked about more openly. And the treatment of those remains needs to be discussed. The acquisition and collection practices of these remains needs to be discussed. And the way some human remains are treated with respect while others are not needs to be discussed.
Just prior to the revelation that remains believed to belong to Tree Africa and Delisha Africa were in a cardboard box, the Penn Museum announced it would return the remains of enslaved Black Americans held in the Morton Cranial Collection. In an announcement headed in bold type with "Racism has no place in our Museum," the Penn Museum gives a history of the collection and the racist beliefs of its namesake, Samuel G. Morton. The crania in this collection were used to justify the racist pseudoscience of polygenism, the theory that humans originated not from one location and one common ancestor (today understood to be located within the African continent), but rather from numerous locations across the planet. Further, these theories were used to justify the belief that White Europeans were genetically and intellectually superior to other races, creating a hierarchy of humanity at which Blacks rested at the lowest rung. Such theories seated in scientific racism were used to support American chattel slavery, and America's fascination with and embrace of such theories in our society inspired Adolf Hitler.
The Penn Museum tells us that racism has no place in their institution, and yet they accepted the Morton Collection from the Academy of Natural Sciences in 1966. Hey, maybe they didn't know the issues inherent in such a collection then. But then they accessioned the collection in 1996. Did we not know better in 1996? I will admit that discussions of race and racism have moved forward significantly since then, but was there any expression of concern when the collection was proposed for accession? Portions of the collection were then put on display in "custom-made glass fronted cabinets in the Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials (CAAM) Classroom 190." At the same time remains from Tree and Delisha languished in a cardboard box, Morton collection crania were given star treatment. And those Morton crania remained on display until last year - until 2020 - when they were moved to storage. And now they will be repatriated and reburied, 25 years after they were accessioned and 55 years after the collection entered the museum.
The Penn Museum is not alone - this is not a callout. Remains of enslaved Black Americans are in other museum collections. Harvard probably has them. The Smithsonian has them. It is not a singular issue at one institution. And it shouldn't be treated as such.
So what is to be done about it?
My opinion: inventory all of them. Publish the inventories. Repatriate. Bury. Honor. That's my suggestion. Sound familiar? It should. We need a NAGPRA-level legislation and reckoning for the field. We need to face this darkness and shine a light, call it out and make it "right." We need to do better. The remains of enslaved Blacks deserve honor and respect, and that means identifying where they are and giving them proper burials.
What I'm saying won't be easy. There are complexities involved, perhaps the most obvious being - to whom should the remains be returned? Where should they be buried? In what manner?
But here's the thing. Just because it's hard doesn't mean it shouldn't be done. The museum field needs to take this on. It will be hard. But it's also just. And these remains deserve justice.