Penn Museum teaches white supremacy when they use the bodies of Black Philadelphians as props
On May 14, 2021, Penn Community for Justice member Rachel Abbott wrote a letter to the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer about her experience as a Penn student working at the Penn Museum. In this Medium article find the uncut version of her story.
Recently like many in the Penn and Philadelphia communities I learned that the Penn museum has kept the remains of two children killed in the 1985 MOVE bombing, after being given the remains by the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office. They were shuttled back and forth between Penn and Princeton and often kept by researcher Alan Mann at his home. This is apparently where they were until recently, according to an email from Penn Museum director Chris Woodman.
I worked at the Penn museum during my freshman year at the institution (2012) and witnessed firsthand the way the museum has stored human remains. At 19, and new to college, I knew very little about museum standards for storing human remains but it would be clear to anyone that the way it was being done wasn’t right. Record-keeping was extremely shoddy for many of the remains, with little to no information recorded. Likewise, Penn was not initially sure where to locate the MOVE children’s bodies when first asked.
The Penn Museum was a big part of why I wanted to go to Penn. I planned to major in anthropology and study biblical archaeology. But after what I witnessed in the basement, I changed my mind.
I was assigned to work with the Samuel Morton collection, a set of remains amassed from around the world by one of the most famous scientific racists of the 19th century. One day, I was asked to begin to organize parts of the collection that were considered “miscellaneous” and had very little catalog information associated with them. In a small room in the basement, I was shown a bank of drawers. Upon opening them, I found they contained bone fragments of all shapes and sizes.
The fragments were broken and lay jumbled together in the old wooden drawers, not organized in any fashion. They were clearly breaking down and degrading slowly in the silent room. The bottom of the drawers was coated with dust. The air felt thick and dry and I wondered what exactly I was breathing in. I wondered when these bones had been placed there and by whom, and how they had come to be so carelessly stored for so long at this prestigious research institution. I thought of how above me, hundreds of thousands of dollars in research funding flowed through the building, and how Morton’s research career in scientific racism was part of building the success of the museum. The institution was literally built atop the bones before me in the basement.
After that day, I requested not to work directly with human remains. Hearing about the MOVE children’s remains brought back some of the horrible sights, sounds, and smells that I experienced, and like many others I feel sick thinking of the way the children have been treated. I deeply regret not speaking up sooner about the unethical treatment of remains at the museum. I keep thinking as well about the hundreds of Penn and Princeton students who took an online course on Coursera that featured a video with Penn professor Janet Monge displaying the bones.
Did they say something? How many of us white students have looked the other way while seeing our institutions enact such violent racism?
Ultimately, by using the bodies of Black Philadelphians as an “educational” tool, the only thing Penn is teaching is white supremacy. Teaching students like me that the bodies of Black Philadelphians are just there for their academic consumption and titillation, while the families continue to suffer, tells students that their own amusement is far more important than the dignity and rights of the Black community in Philadelphia. Just as Samuel Morton’s “scientific” discoveries were shown long ago to be completely devoid of any meaning beyond upholding white supremacy, I believe so will the use of these children’s remains as educational tools.
The harm that has been done to the children and their families can never be undone. However, Penn can and should meet the demands of organizations calling for the immediate return of the children’s remains, a full investigation with community oversight and reparations to the families impacted. I know I’m not the only Penn alum who would also like to see the same process carried out for the entire Morton Collection.
Written by Rachel Abbott (She/Her)
Rachel Abbott is a 2016 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and a member of Penn Community for Justice. Rachel can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.