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.
And skulls, without social histories, are now scientifically useful. One can measure them, categorize them, and make inferences based on the data that the skulls seem to suggest. The science of phrenology was, as we know, based on this logic, and Morton, if nothing else, was a meticulous phrenologist. He would fill skulls with sifted mustard seed, empty the seeds into a volumetric cylinder, and then use these mean values to calculate cranial capacities. He used these cranial values to make further inferences about each racial group, correlating capacities with hierarchies in intelligence – explicitly stating that the Caucasian race possessed superior intelligence to the Ethiopian i.e. an imagined black racial group. He also used these cranial measurements to suggest that each race originated separately and discretely in different parts of the world, attempting to prove the hypothesis of polygenesis that was laced with his own Christian values. In his paradigm, any sort of miscegenation – mixing of races – was a perversion of the racial system that was always meant to be and therefore illegitimate and unworthy of study.
Not surprisingly, Morton himself did not want to have his own skull included as part of the collection. In sum, the science of race was but the science of racism. In the ensuing 150 years every single one of Morton’s claims have been disproven and the very categories of race have been de-bunked as scientifically illegitimate, even if they have taken on even more power as social facts. Our current film project begins from this departure point, asking: what is the continued relevance of Morton’s insights and scientific racism more generally? How do these notions continue to hold sway in popular imagination, impacting policies as diverse as housing and medicine? What new scientific methods are deployed that, either advertently or inadvertently, reinforce racial categories?