As the Penn Museum looks to the future under new director Christopher Woods, it is also reckoning with its past.
In April, the same month that Woods began, the museum apologized for “allowing human remains recovered from the MOVE house to be used for research and teaching, and for retaining the remains for too long.”
About a week before that apology, news outlets reported that the museum had been storing bones of a victim from the MOVE bombing—the infamous 1985 incident in which the Philadelphia Police Department bombed a residential home occupied by the group. MOVE was led by John Africa, who was among 11 killed. In a message to the University community, Woods and Provost Wendell Pritchett Gr’97 wrote, “The Africa family and our community have experienced profound emotional distress as a result of the news … and this fact has urgently raised serious questions.”
In the note, they explained that the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office had asked Penn physical anthropologists to assist with the efforts to identify some of the remains in 1985. “But despite these efforts, we, unfortunately, are still unable to provide conclusive confirmation of identity,” they wrote, adding that Woods learned on April 16 that the remains, reportedly a burned femur and pelvis, were in the museum and had been used in an online forensic anthropology class (which has since been suspended) that was offered by Princeton University and taught by a member of the Penn Museum staff.
Calling it a “serious error in judgement” to use bones without consent, “these remains should be returned to the Africa family as soon as possible,” Pritchett and Woods wrote. “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.”
Promising to “reassess our practice of collecting, stewarding, displaying, and researching human remains,” the University announced the hiring of two attorneys to investigate what transpired, adding that the findings will be shared with the community.
Woods and Pritchett pointed out that this topic was “very much on the mind of museum staff” because earlier in April the Penn Museum announced its plan regarding the repatriation or reburial of other human remains, including those of Black Philadelphians, within the Samuel G. Morton Cranial collection. Collected in the first half of the 19th century by Samuel G. Morton M1820, whose research was used to justify white supremacist views, the collection has been housed in storage in the museum’s physical anthropology section.
“The Penn Museum and the University of Pennsylvania apologize for the unethical possession of human remains in the Morton Collection,” Woods had said in a statement. “It is time for these individuals to be returned to their ancestral communities, wherever possible, as a step toward atonement and repair for the racist and colonial practices that were integral to the formation of these collections.”