Without their Consent: Handling Legacy Collections and Anatomy Teaching Specimens Acquired without Informed Consent

Without their Consent: Handling Legacy Collections and Anatomy Teaching Specimens Acquired without Informed Consent
Pamela L. Geller
Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, 13 May 2022; 36(1)
Open Access
Legacy collections have proven invaluable for teaching students about anatomy and standard methods. It is safe to presume, however, that ancient and historic decedents never consented to their inclusion in collections or use as pedagogical tools. A utilitarian position—that the use of these human remains serves a higher scientific purpose—becomes even harder to justify when educators acknowledge the historic necropolitical projects and suffering that underpinned the formation of legacy collections. How then to proceed scholastically with such affective and politically charged human remains?

As a complex case study, I consider the Samuel G. Morton Crania Collection. To instruct the medical students who populated his anatomy classes, the Philadelphia physician amassed over 900 crania from 1830 to 1851. After Morton’s death, the Academy of Natural Sciences purchased the collection, where it was all but forgotten. Almost a century later, in 1966, it came under the stewardship of the Penn Museum, its pedagogical purpose resurrected. While Stephen Jay Gould drew attention to the scientific racism of Morton’s research, it was not until the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 that ethical deliberations began in earnest. Here I continue these trains of thought with a discussion of the Afro-Cuban crania in the Morton Collection.

Morton acquired these decedents from his Cuban colleague Dr. José Rodriguez Cisneros in 1840. The latter designated them “negros bozales,” an indicator of their enslaved status and African origins; additional information about tribe and country was not provided. In summer 2020, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the racial justice protests his death catalyzed, these skulls erupted into the public consciousness. There were calls to “Return Them All.” I regard this response as well intentioned but also reactionary and unnuanced. To determine if sustained use is viable where consent is inadequate, for this case and more generally, I bring to the fore two concepts: the agentive corpse and ontological insecurity. Both concepts require educators and researchers to culturally contextualize human remains, as well as attend to the dynamic meanings attached to them—by past communities and their living descendants. With this knowledge in hand, I make some tentative recommendations about the fate of these controversial and highly sensitive human remains.

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