The Penn Museum has a long, complex history within the thriving urban community of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The museum has assumed a variety of niches throughout time: exhibitioner, educator, oppressor, gatekeeper, collaborator, inquisitor. The Penn Museum is an ethnographic institution which aims to accurately represent multiple areas across the world under one roof. Ever since the museum’s initial founding, this representation was formulated by anthropologists, curators, and board members who openly held the opinion that Europeans were distinctly different from, and superior, than all non-Europeans. Representation of cultures within the museum were mainly divided by skin color and group behavior, rather than geographical and ethnic origin.
Recent trends in anthropology, as well as a growing public partiality for social equality, have drawn attention to the roots of representation in museums as a whole, which reside in hundreds of years of colonial rule and native subjugation. As its current staff have continued to address the mounting pressure from both the public and governmental ordinances such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), the Penn Museum has taken distinct efforts to improve their representation of those who have been oppressed by the powers of imperialism. These efforts have been made possible with a more diverse staff, and the facilitation of the repatriation of certain museum objects to indigenous as well as African tribes. The following is a timeline of the Penn Museum’s founding and the ongoing process of healing the wounds caused by colonialism through artifact repatriation.
1835: The Blockley Almshouse, upon which grounds the Penn Museum was later built, was established. The Almshouse included a hospital and asylum, whose goal was to rehabilitate patients so that they can take on responsibilities as citizens, family members, and workers. The poorhouse took care of the elderly who were unable to take care of themselves, but it also sought to retrain the younger and more able inmates in hopes of reintroducing them into the labor force. Every correctional officer, nurse, and attendant in these institutions were considered a kind of teacher.
1870: The University of Pennsylvania purchased part of the grounds of the Blockley Almshouse, where it would build its historic campus core, including College Hall in 1872, and the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in 1874. These grounds included buildings, gardens, and many cemeteries.
1882: Penn acquired forty-seven more acres of almshouse property. The deed of transfer was followed by a City ordinance obligating the University “to provide ‘at least 50 free scholarships” to Philadelphia public school students ‘from time to time,’ no less than $7,500 annually.” Penn acquired the land to build the University Museum of Archeology and Anthropology and Franklin Field, among other campus structures. During the earliest years of Philadelphia, the primary burial locations for both enslaved and free African Americans were the Potter’s field cemetery in Washington Square and the almshouse burial grounds, where the University was now located. Much of Penn is built over these cemeteries which were targets of grave robbing for the medical school and the Penn Museum itself.
December 30, 1887: The Board of the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania commissioned a museum “to bring together artifacts that embody the history of humanity.”
1889: The museum’s first collection opens on the top floor of College Hall.
1899: The museum moves into its own separate building, called “The Free Museum of Science and Art.”
1902: R.C. H. Brock of the Wanamaker Expedition removed a Zuni War God from its position atop a shrine on ‘Thunder Mountain,’ which later found its way to be put on display at the museum at the University of Pennsylvania.
1910: George Bryan Gordon takes over as director of the museum through 1927.
1915: The museum, now renamed “University Museum,” opens a new wing- the Harrison Wing, welcoming visitors to view galleries which held collections from Asia and to participate in events held in the rotunda (auditorium).
1924: The Coxe Wing opens, focusing on finds and collections from six museum expeditions to Nubia and Egypt.
1929: The Stock Market Crash and the beginning of the Great Depression left the museum unable to stay afloat. The director, Horace H. F. Jayne, was forced to cut staff and call on the University for financial assistance. The Depression also prevented further construction of the museum for a while.
1929: The Administrative Wing opens, which holds a rotating variety of offices and collections focused on Africa, Asia, Greece, and Italy.
1960: The Academy of Natural Sciences loaned the entire Morton collection to the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, later permanently gifting the collection to the Museum where it resides today.
1971: The Academic Wing opens, which holds storage rooms, offices, classrooms, and retail spaces. This is also when the Museum starts to host the Anthropology Department onsite in the Museum building.
1990: Passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, as a federal law affecting all public museums.
1990: The University Museum repatriated one Zuni War God (Ahuyu:da) and 14 associated objects to the community of Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico. It was transferred in a formal ceremony to Zuni representatives Barton Martza, Head Councilman, Perry Tsadiasi, Bow Priest, and T.J. Ferguson of the Institute of the North American West.
August 1991: A repatriation was completed by the University Museum, which included an infant mummy collected in 1893 from a cave in Hanapeepee Valley, Kauai. The mummy was given to Hui Mālama I Nā Kūpuna O Hawai’i Nei, after having resided as part of the Morton Collection.
1994: Approximately eighty-five human remains were repatriated to the Chugach Alaska Corporation. These remains had originally been excavated by the Penn Museum in the regions of Prince William Sound and Kachemak Bay.
November 15, 1996: An additional sixty-two human remains were transferred from the Morton Collection to Hui Mālama I Nā Kūpuna O Hawai’i Nei and then eight more remains were repatriated on October 1, 1997.
1998: The remains of two humans were repatriated to the Oneida Nation of New York, after they had originally been donated to the University of Pennsylvania Museum by George Roberts, along with four associated funerary objects, including three iron fragments and mirror glass.
April 1998: The transfer of two human remains occurred between the Penn Museum and the Cayuga Nation of Versailles, New York. The remains had originally come to the museum by ‘collectors’ who ‘excavated’ the bodies of natives for donation to the museum’s collections in the late 19th century.
September 29, 1999: Two human remains, which had been donated to the museum by Dr. J.M. Whitney, who found them in “a lava cave on the island of Hawai’i,” were repatriated to Hui Mālama I Nā Kūpuna O Hawai’i Nei.
October 25, 1999: The museum repatriated two human remains to the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska and the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin, after the bodies had originally been removed from an unknown site by P. Gregg, and donated to the museum in 1893.
2000: Approximately thirty-five human remains were repatriated to the Chugach Alaska Corporation. These remains had originally been excavated by the Penn Museum in the regions of Prince William Sound and Kachemak Bay.
2000: The remains of one person were repatriated to the Klamath Indian Tribe of Oregon. The remains were recovered from Ft. Klamath, Oregon at an ‘unknown date’ by an ‘unknown collector.’
February 2000: The human remains of one individual were repatriated to the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma. The remains were identified as a “Native American shot in the Black Hawk War, 1905.” The remains were received by the museum by an ‘unknown’ person sometime around the year 1915.
April 27, 2000: The transfer of the remains of one person occurred between the Penn Museum and the Cayuga Nation of Versailles, New York. They were excavated from a burial near Union Springs, Cayuga County, NY by William W. Adams, who donated these human remains to the Academy of Natural Sciences in 1894.
July 2000: The remains of one person were repatriated by the university to the Native Village of Unalakleet, Alaska, after having initially been removed in 1969 from an archaeological excavation east of Kouwegok Slough, near Unalakleet.
October 24, 2000: The museum repatriated two human remains to the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe of Sequim, Washington, the Port Gamble Indian Community of the Port Gamble Reservation, and the Lower Elwha Tribal Community of the lower Elwha Reservation. The bodies had originally been removed by ‘collectors’ in Puget Sound, WA, and donated to the museum in the late 19th century.
2002: The Mainwaring Wing for Collections Storage opens as a state-of-the-art location for museum and anthropological storage purposes, equipped with climate controlled workspaces for the study of perishable collections.
2002: The Penn Museum repatriated nineteen wooden masks of vital cultural and ceremonial importance to the Tribal Corporation, Denakkanaaga, Inc. of the Central Alaskan village of Grayling. The masks had originally been taken from there during a Museum collecting expedition in 1935.
November 2002: The human remains of one individual were determined to be culturally affiliated with the Comanche Tribe of Oklahoma. This was determined through consultation with the NAGPRA Official of this group. The remains, which were originally from the Morton Collection, were repatriated on this date.
December 2002: The human remains of one individual were, through consultation with the NAGPRA Coordinator, determined to be culturally affiliated with the Native Village of Kotzebue. These remains were from the Morton Collection but repatriated in December 2002.
January 10, 2002: The museum repatriated one Gaan (Mountain Spirit) headdress to the White Mountain Apache Tribe, viewed by them as a “sacred object” and an “object of cultural patrimony.” The headdress had been acquired by the Museum in 1959, after a trade with the Denver Art Museum, who had acquired it themselves under “unknown circumstances.”
2002: A small grant from the University Research Council of the University of Pennsylvania helped launch ORSA—The Open Research Scan Archive—a collection of high-resolution CT scans of human and non-human cranial (cranium and mandible) and post-cranial (neck-down) remains.
November 2003: The remains of twelve individuals were found through consultation and museum documentation to be culturally affiliated with the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma and the Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma. With the support of the Peoria Tribe, representatives from the Miami Tribe travelled to the Penn Museum in November 2003 to repatriate the twelve human remains for reburial. Prior to being donated to the Penn Museum, these remains were part of the Morton Collection.
2005: In 2000, the Sac & Fox Tribe submitted a repatriation claim for one wooden bowl as a “Sacred Object.” Based on consultation and available literature, wooden bowls of this type are needed by traditional Meskwaki (Fox) religious leaders in order to pray to and communicate with their gods. Bowls of this type were and still are used in many complex and traditional religious practices and ceremonies, such as the Sacred Bundle Ceremony, the Ceremonial Feast to Honor the Departed, the Ceremonial Naming Feast, the Return of the Name Feast, and Ceremonial Adoptions. The University concluded that it has “Right of Possession” of the object. However, in recognition of the significance of the sacred object to the tribe’s contemporary religious practices and its historical significance and consistent with the intent of NAGPRA, the University voluntarily returned the bowl to the Sac & Fox Tribe in 2005.
2005: The Museum’s Warden Garden (surrounded by the original 1899 building) is temporarily removed to create space for the installation of equipment for the future air conditioning of the older wings, plus additional work and storage space under the Warden Garden. The Warden Sub-Garden project is led by Dagit/Saylor and made possible through the generosity of Charles K. Williams II, Ph.D. The Garden itself is then reinstalled, replacing the original 1899 reflecting pool with a new one modeled on the same plan.
August 2006: Through consultation with the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate of the Lake Traverse Reservation and with the support of other affiliated groups, the human remains of one individual were repatriated to the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate. Collector’s records, museum documentation, and published sources (Morton 1839, 1840, and 1849; Meigs 1857) identify the human remains as those of a female “Dacota” Sioux warrior of Wisconsin and date them to the Historic period, probably to the early 19th century. In August 2006, a delegation from the Sissteon-Wahpeton Oyate travelled to the Penn Museum to repatriate the human remains, and members of Kitt-Fox Society performed a ceremony in the Warden Garden prior to the groups’ departure that day.
2007: Through consultation with Mr. Francis Morris, Repatriation Coordinator, of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, the human remains of one individual were identified as culturally affiliated with the Pawnee in 1999. The Pawnee Nation requested that the University Museum retain physical control of these remains until 2007 when the remains were returned to the tribe for reburial.
February 2008: Through consultation with several Hawaiian organizations the human remains of one individual were identified as Hawaiian. During consultation, Hui Mālama I Nā Kūpuna O Hawai’i Nei, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, and the Hawai’i Island Burial Council, submitted a joint request asking the Penn Museum to consider loaning the human remains to a Hawaiian institution so that the iwi would be on Hawaiian soil pending a determination of its cultural affiliation and completion of the repatriation process. The cranium was transferred to the Hawaiian facility in May 2006 remaining there until the remains were repatriated in February 2008.
September 2011: Through Consultation with the Hoonah Indian Association (HIA) and the Huna Heritage Foundation (HHF), acting on behalf of the Huna Totem Corporation (HTC), and representing the Tlingít T’akdeintaan Clan of Hoonah, Alaska, eight Tlingit objects were found to meet the statutory definitions of sacred objects and/or objects of cultural patrimony and were repatriated to the Tribe in September, 2011. The eight objects are one wooden box drum, one hide robe, two carved wooden masks, one carved wooden headdress, one head cover, one carved wooden rattle, and one carved wooden pipe.
September 2013: Through consultation with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians of North Carolina, the Cherokee Nation, Oklahoma, and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, the human remains of six individuals were identified as Cherokee. In September 2013, representatives from the Tribal Historic Preservation Office of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians travelled to the Penn Museum to repatriate the human remains jointly with the Cherokee Nation and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians. Archival documentation describes one of the individuals as “an Indian well known in the County…He was one of the greatest ball players in his tribe. While playing ball he slipped & fell & dislocated his spine & died immediately.”
April 27, 2015: Through consultation with over twenty tribes, the Penn Museum found that one set of human remains from Pequaming, Baraga County located in Michigan were culturally affiliated with Chippewa groups whose aboriginal occupation included the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where Baraga County is located. On April 27, 2015, representatives for the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, Michigan (KBIC) visited the Museum to repatriate the human remains.
October 12, 2015: Through consultation with Native American groups, human remains in the collections of the Penn Museum of twenty-one individuals removed between 1830 and 1895 from various locations in Florida and Oklahoma were identified as Seminole or Creek. Associated archival documentation indicates that several of these individuals were killed during the Second Seminole War (1835-1842). On October 12, 2015, representatives from the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s Tribal Historic Preservation Office travelled to Philadelphia to formally receive the human remains. The remains were reburied shortly after returning to Florida.
October 29, 2015: Penn Museum transfers control of the human remains of a minimum of five individuals from the archaeological site of Tranquility in California (CA-FRE-48) to the Santa Rosa Rancheria of California. The human remains range in age from three or six months to later adulthood. Both males and females are represented. No known individuals were identified. No associated funerary objects are present.
July 27, 2016: Two clan hats approved for repatriation by the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania in 2010 were transferred to Tlingit tribal officials on July 17, 2016. Made of woven spruce root, with a wooden dorsal fin, human hair, abalone shell, and black pigment depicting a killer whale with open mouth, the 19th century hat was made to commemorate the dedication of the Whale House of the L’ooknax.adi (Coho) Clan at Sitka. Tlingit specialists repatriated two clan hats from the Penn Museum on July 17.
November 16-17, 2019: The Penn Museum had a reopening to show its newly renovated African, Mexico, and Central America galleries.
March 13, 2020: The Penn Museum closed its doors to visitors due to growing concerns over the virulence of COVID-19. Its online galleries remained available to the public, with a digital database of its items and curated collections available for perusal.