After updating its policies on the handling and display of human remains, the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Museum will no longer put exposed remains on view. Wrapped mummified bodies enclosed in a vessel, however, may still appear in exhibitions at the Philadelphia museum, where they will be displayed with warning signs.
“It’s about prioritizing human dignity and the wishes of descent communities,” Penn Museum director Christopher Woods told WHYY News. “We want to make sure that these are our front and center of how the museum operates.”
Museum displays may still showcase recreations of human remains. Penn’s educational programs will use artificial remains for teaching purposes in accordance with this latest policy.
“Only in the advanced classes, subject to review, would we use actual human remains,” added Woods.
Penn has a number of controversial human remains in its collection. The partial remains of six adults and five children who died in the 1985 MOVE bombing and fire in West Philpadelphia have been stored at the Penn Museum for more than 35 years. That event was followed by a standoff between the police and the majority-Black community group MOVE.
The museum changed its policy after a 2021 independent report on the MOVE remains revealed their continued mishandling. The report resulted in the termination of two anthropologists. It recommended the hiring of an expert in human remains and repatriation issues, as well as the establishment of a permanent installation providing necessary context about the human remains. Additionally, it urged the University of Pennsylvania to review its holdings and collection practices.
Pending court approval, the museum plans to inter 23 skulls of Black people who resided in Philadelphia next spring.
Before the MOVE report came out, Penn Museum had apologized that same year for its Morton Crania Collection, which contains more than 1,300 skulls of Black and Indigenous people from the 19th century, and launched an investigation.
Most major institutions have policies on the ethical treatment of human remains, but the Penn Museum is among the few to have publicly said it will no longer exhibit them.
A committee focused on human remains at the museum ended up also recommending increasing staff and resources. Doing so, the committee said, would help as the museum as it prepares artifacts for repatriation not already covered by the 1989 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
These issues are hardly unique to the Penn Museum, however, as a number of institutions, such as the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., the Museum of Mankind in Paris, and Harvard University in Cambridge, are grappling with similar issues. And in Philadelphia alone, the Mütter Museum, which has a collection of human remains affected by diseases and ailments, has divided experts by placing much of its holdings under review.