Towards a respectful resolution: An apology to the Africa family

(Content Warning: contains discussion of human remains.)

The Penn Museum and the University of Pennsylvania apologize to the Africa family and the members of our community for allowing human remains recovered from the MOVE house to be used for research and teaching, and for retaining the remains for far too long.

The Africa family and our community have experienced profound emotional distress as a result of the news that human remains from the horrific 1985 bombing of the MOVE house were at the Penn Museum and this fact has urgently raised serious questions: Why were the remains at the Museum in the first place? Why were they used for teaching purposes? And, most importantly, what are we going to do to resolve this situation?

In 1985, the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office asked Penn physical anthropologists to assist with the efforts to identify some of the remains from the MOVE house. It is common for physical anthropologists to assist in forensic cases where individual identity is uncertain, and over the years our experts revisited this question, driven by new science and technology. But despite these efforts, we, unfortunately, are still unable to provide conclusive confirmation of identity.

Chris Woods personally learned on April 16 that these remains were in our Museum and that they had been used in a forensic anthropology class, having assumed his role as director on April 1. The important topic of returning human remains to descendants was very much on the minds of Museum staff as there had just been a public announcement of plans regarding the Morton Cranial Collection, and the issue of the MOVE victim’s remains was raised in this context. In theApril 12 announcement of the plans for the Morton Collection, we vowed to work with local communities to learn their wishes and to return individuals to their ancestors, wherever possible, as a step toward atonement and repair for the racist and colonial practices that were integral to the formation of these collections.

While the remains recovered from the MOVE house were not part of the Museumcollection, it could not be clearer that this same standard should be applied here as well—these remains should be returned to the Africa family as soon as possible. The research of our physical anthropologists was done in the interests of serving our community, but by any measure 36 years is far too long to have waited.

We understand the importance of reuniting these remains with the family. This is our goal. And we are committed to a respectful, consultative resolution.

For many, one of the most traumatic parts of this narrative is that some of these remains were used in a forensic anthropology class that was offered by Princeton University and taught by a member of the Penn Museum staff. This course has now been suspended.

Classes in forensic science require human remains to teach the next generation of forensic specialists. However, it is an ethical imperative to show the utmost respect to family survivors. Informed consent must be given by the person before death or by the family afterwards. Regretfully, this did not happen in this case—and it was a serious error in judgment to use these remains in a class of any kind, especially given the extreme emotional distress in our community surrounding the 1985 bombing of the MOVE house. Unquestionably, the decision to use the remains in this way has torn at old wounds that our city and community have long sought to heal.

The Museum has promised to reassess our practices of collecting, stewarding, displaying, and researching human remains, and we are committed to this promise. It is now obvious, however, that this reassessment must also include how human remains are used in teaching as well as a comprehensive review of the holdings and collection practices of our Physical Anthropology section.

As part of this review, the University of Pennsylvania has hired attorneys Joe Tucker and Carl Singley of the Tucker Law Group to investigate how the remains came into the possession of the Museum and what transpired with them for nearly four decades. This report will be shared with the community and its findings used to help us ensure that nothing of this nature is repeated in the future.

We must constantly bear in mind the fact that human remains were once living people, and we must always strive to treat them with the dignity and respect that they deserve.