Making and Unmaking Race: Morton Collection of Human Crania in the Spotlight at Penn Museum

PHILADELPHIA — Is there such a thing in humans called race? That’s the question posed by the Penn Museum’s new exhibition, Year of Proof: Making and Unmaking Race, on view now through August 18, 2013, in the Museum’s Trescher Entrance foyer.

Since the emergence of biology and anthropology, scientists began to develop categories for all living things on earth, including humans. But what can the categorization of humans tell us? And how might this information be helpful or harmful?

Race is only one way of categorizing human variation. Penn Museum houses the once famous, now infamous Morton Collection of human crania, originally collected in the mid-1800s to confirm society’s beliefs about racial hierarchy. Making and Unmaking Race considers how scientists have used the Morton Collection from the 19th century to today, and what implications arose from their respective analyses. Developed in conjunction with the University of Pennsylvania’s Year of Proof, the small exhibition features mid-19th century measuring devices, short videos that shed light on both contemporary and historical research methods, and more than a dozen human crania from the Morton Collection.

On Thursday, October 4, 4:30 pm, the Museum hosts a free related mini-symposium, “From Skulls to Scans: How Brain Measurements Have Been Used, Misused, and Misunderstood in the Study of Racial Difference.”

Philadelphia physician and scientist Samuel George Morton (1799–1851) was known for his measurement and analysis of human skulls, and he collected about 1,200 human crania from around the world to conduct his early research. Like many Americans of his time, Morton believed that Europeans were more intelligent than other races, and his ideas helped fuel public debate about slavery and racial inequality. As time went on, his research conclusions were soundly refuted—and his famous collection grew infamous.

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