By Arjun Shankar, PhD
At the Penn Museum, there is a room deep in its basement, far away from the watchful eyes of a passing public in which nearly 900 skulls sit, organized by number, behind glass cabinets, a reminder of anthropology’s beginnings as the study of the Other. Each of these skulls was collected by the racist scientist, Samuel Morton, over the course of 50 years, meticulously differentiated based on his global racial categorization system: mongolian race, caucasian race, malay race, american race, and the ethiopian race. Similar racial categories were promoted with variations around the world, sometimes with fewer and more racial categories included.
But before we explore these cabinets of curiosities further, we might ask, how can a human skull and humans become an object of curiosity? The first and most important starting point is to strip these humans of his or her humanity. These human skulls, which were attached to human beings with families, cultures, aspirations, dreams, must be considered valuable only in so far as they were/are the repositories of information for those conferred subjectivity, agency, and, yes, curiosity. Laws reinforce this logic as, to this day, skulls that are over 100 years old are considered antiques, no different than the jars, furniture, and anything else that was considered worthy of inclusion in the cabinets of curiosity. Whether or not the skulls were stolen from sacred burial sites, sold by a kin relation to make a quick buck, or given as gifts by prison wardens after the deaths of inmates, they are now merely antiques.