Repatriation & Reparations NOW! Restating What We Mean by Abolish the Morton Collection.


[4/14/2021 UPDATE]

After years of pressure from community members, activists, students, and researchers, the Penn Museum has finally publicly committed to repatriating the entire Morton Collection of human crania. In a statement released April 12th 2021, the Museum apologized for the continued harm caused by the Morton Collection and vowed to immediately begin a transparent repatriation process for all remains therein, including the creation of a new committee under BIPOC leadership to oversee the return of the remains of Black Philadelphians stolen from their graves.

While we are happy that the Museum has answered Police Free Penn’s central demand, to publicly commit to the repatriation of ALL remains within the Collection, we are concerned about their lack of commitment to a community-centered process. According to the Museum’s statement, the committee to oversee the repatriation of Black Philadelphians will include “members from Penn’s offices of Social Equity and Community, Government and Community Affairs, the University Chaplain, General Counsel, and others to explore options for reburial in a historically Black Philadelphia cemetery.” After decades of UPPD cops terrorizing West Philly and the University profiting off the dispossession of Black Philadelphians, we do not trust that any of these Penn insiders have the interests of Philadelphia’s Black community at heart. We will therefore continue to demand that Black spiritual leaders and community members are involved in this process at every step, including our organizing partner Abdul-Aliy Muhammad of the Black and Brown Workers Co-Op, clergyman Nicholas O’Rourke of the Working Families Party, and Reverend Naomi Washington-Leapheart.

Any further repatriation committees formed by the Museum must include members of the affected communities, not just institutional insiders who continue to collect paychecks and credit for the labor of local activists. This is not a publicity opportunity for the University. Let’s not forget what it took to get here: Black organizers putting themselves at risk to raise awareness around this issue, and a summer of rebellion met with violent police suppression, including by the UPPD.

Furthermore, we reiterate our demands around the use of data sourced from the Morton Collection, which continues to be used without consent:

End the use of data sourced from the collection without consent and remove all images from the Museum’s digital footprint that represent the deceased without consent.

Police Free Penn will continue to uplift the demands of Black and Indigenous-led organizing around this issue.

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[Original 7/15/2020 Post]

We demand that the Penn Museum permanently abolish the Morton Collection, a collection of over 1,000 human crania unethically taken from around the world by the racist pseudoscientist Samuel Morton.

Despite acknowledging its racist and anti-Black origins, and committing to move the Collection out of open storage, the Museum plans to continue to use the Collection as a teaching tool, exhibit the crania with “proper context,” make it available for research, and offer data collected from it in an online database. This continued use of the Morton Collection for exhibition and research only reproduces Morton’s violent and white supremacist assumption: that the descendents of enslaved Africans, and of Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian communities do not have the right to care for their own ancestors; and that the desires of imperial knowledge-producers supersede the self-determination of Black and brown communities.

The Penn Museum claims on their website that Black Lives Matter, and that it must do more to address its founding as a colonial, racist institution. PoliceFreePenn would like to remind the Museum that it cannot dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. In order to begin any process of redress for the harm done by the Morton Collection, the Museum must deaccession and, where possible, repatriate the entire Collection as an act of material reparations to the Black/African-descendant, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian communities from which the collection’s remains were taken.

The Museum’s commitments to repatriation have so far been tepid and lacked any transparency to the public. We know that repatriation is a difficult process. It should be. The Museum must do more than “begin to explore the possibility,” more than host innumerable further conversations around cultural heritage, all while it keeps in its possession the remains of ancestors. Only by committing to transformative, community-engaged repatriation now can the Museum begin to redress the harm it has done as an institution founded in colonial violence, imperial expansion, and racist knowledge-production.These are our demands:

  • Immediately remove the Morton Collection from CAAM 190 and place it in closed storage.
  • Publicly commit to abolishing the Morton Collection and update the Museum website to reflect this decision.
  • Initiate a process of repatriation and/or community-led interment of all remains in the collection, and make public all previous repatriation requests submitted to the Museum regarding the Collection.
  • Create a dedicated, full-time staff position to work on the repatriation process of all remains and an advisory council inclusive of students and members of Philadelphia’s Black/African-descendant, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian communities.
  • If contact cannot be made with direct Black/African-descendant communities, heed the demand of West Philly activist Abdul-Aliy Muhammad to release the remains of Black/African persons to local Black spiritual communities who can determine the appropriate way to inter the remains.
  • Publicly apologize for the harm to Black/African-descendant, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian communities inflicted by the Museum’s continued use of the Morton Collection as a “teaching tool.”
  • Add a disclaimer to all sections of the Museum website addressing the Morton Collection that includes a statement acknowledging the harm done to Black/African-descendant, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian communities by the Morton Collection and its continued use.
  • Specifically address the harm the Collection has done to Black/African-descendant communities through the unethical acquisition of the crania of enslaved people; in the development of scientific racism to justify slavery; and in its ongoing display and utilization for research at the University of Pennsylvania in the historically Black neighborhood of West Philadelphia.
  • End the use of data sourced from the collection without consent and remove all images from the Museum’s digital footprint that represent the deceased without consent.

“The question is not how to study imperial violence as yet another object of research, but how to withdraw, as much as we can, from the operation of these imperial technologies of knowledge production… The issue is about the right to name and to define, the right to repair and care for relationships outside of the terms set by imperial institutions, the right to deny perpetrators and their inheritors their imperial right to continue to own and profit off of what was robbed, the right to hold dear ones as family rather than documents.” Ariella Azoulay, Free Renty

In solidarity,



#PoliceFreePenn: An Abolitionist Assembly

Our aim is abolish policing and transform community safety at the University of Pennsylvania.