UPenn students visualize scientific racism in ‘Rotten Foundations’

Dozens of students enrolled in University of Pennsylvania's introductory anthropology course ''Anthropology, Race, and the Making of the Modern World'' made plaster casts of their own faces. In the exhibit ''Rotten Foundations, Dangerous Footholds'', each is accompanied by a QR code that leads viewers to discover details about the individual.

Dozens of students enrolled in University of Pennsylvania's introductory anthropology course made plaster casts of their own faces. In the exhibit, each is accompanied by a QR code that leads viewers to discover details about the individual. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Consider the famous image of the evolution of man, wherein a hunched-over ape gradually becomes more upright as he moves through time, eventually becoming a modern homo sapien.

Faruq Adger observed that the modern man with a straight back on the right side — the supposed apex of a linear evolutionary progress — is usually white and looks European.

Adgar is a University of Pennsylvania freshman studying anthropology, taking a critical look at that iconic image and noticing its implicit racism.

“This is a really good way to see how imperialism, how Eurocentric mindsets and ideologies have shaped my thinking,” he said. “We can expand our thoughts instead of going through old tendencies.”

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University of Pennsylvania anthropology student Faruq Adger adds words to a print often used in to illustrate the evolution of man. The work is exhibited in the Slought Foundation's exhibit on scientific racism, ''Rotten Foundations, Dangerous Footholds.''
University of Pennsylvania anthropology student Faruq Adger adds words to a print often used in to illustrate the evolution of man. The work is exhibited in the Slought Foundation’s exhibit on scientific racism, ”Rotten Foundations, Dangerous Footholds.” (Emma Lee/WHYY)

For the exhibition “Rotten Foundations, Dangerous Footholds,” Adger and his classmates created an alternative version of the evolution of man, which looks more like a spatial map suggesting several threads of evolution occurring simultaneously, favoring no particular end result.

It is one of a handful of student projects challenging racist thinking in both historic and contemporary science currently on view at the Slought Foundation, an academic and cultural engagement storefront gallery in West Philadelphia near the UPenn campus.

This semester, students in UPenn’s Anthro 002, or “Anthropology, Race, and the Making of the Modern World,” only had to look in their news feeds to find a case study of scientific racism right at their feet.

In the spring of 2021, protests were held at Penn Museum over its historic collection of about 1,300 skulls gathered by Dr. Samuel Morton in the early 19th century. Morton measured the skulls and concluded that white people have bigger skulls and are therefore more intelligent, as was popularly believed at the time. (Using skull size to make claims about race and intelligence has since widely been debunked as pseudoscience.) His collection prominently features skulls of African American and Afro-Cuban people, none of whom gave permission to have their remains held in an institution for study. Many of the crania were stolen from graves.

University of Pennsylvania anthropology students used their own bodies to simulate human remains and explore what it means to be used for scientific study. The exhibit ''Rotten Foundations, Dangerous Footholds'' illustrates the dehumanizing effect of reducing a person to a set of traits or characteristics
University of Pennsylvania anthropology students used their own bodies to simulate human remains and explore what it means to be used for scientific study. The exhibit ”Rotten Foundations, Dangerous Footholds” illustrates the dehumanizing effect of reducing a person to a set of traits or characteristics. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Until recently, many of those skulls were stored in glass cases in a campus classroom. The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archeology, which owns the collection, has removed the skulls from view and begun a process of repatriation, returning the skulls to their appropriate resting places.

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For the class project, anthropology students used their own bodies to simulate human remains and explore what it means to be used for scientific study. Dozens of students made plaster casts of their own faces, arranged in a grid on a wall of the gallery.

“Often when people encountered dead people from another culture — as is the case with the Samuel Morton collection — they would ask for the crania. Sometimes they would make casts of these crania,” said Professor Deborah A. Thomas, director of the Center for Experimental Ethnography.

“The idea behind crania collections was to map out an evolutionary understanding of humans over time. Really what they were doing was ranking humans,” she said.

Professor Deborah A. Thomas, director of the Center for Experimental Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, teaches ''Anthropology, Race, and the Making of the Modern World.''
Professor Deborah A. Thomas, director of the Center for Experimental Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, teaches ”Anthropology, Race, and the Making of the Modern World.” (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The Morton Collection was assembled to find racial differences by measuring skulls, building a theory that people with European skulls are fundamentally more capable than African and Indigenous American skulls.

While there is some scientific value in measuring and comparing skulls, Thomas says they reveal little about the intellectual and social development of a people.

“When casts are exhibited in a university, there’s no contextualizing information. You don’t know how they got there, why they’re there, who they were, what kind of broader community relationships they had,” said Thomas.

Each of the student’s plaster faces on the wall is accompanied by a QR code, leading viewers to an online page written by the student on display, describing their life, family, friends, pets, hobbies, even playlists of their favorite music. They describe themselves as culturally complex.

Dozens of students enrolled in University of Pennsylvania's introductory anthropology course ''Anthropology, Race, and the Making of the Modern World'' made plaster casts of their own faces.
Dozens of students enrolled in University of Pennsylvania’s introductory anthropology course made plaster casts of their own faces. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

For example, one of the students Alice Zheng explains in her post that she grew up in New York City with her Chinese immigrant parents. Her Spotify playlist leans toward Korean K-pop, rap by Tobi Lou from Nigeria by way of Chicago, and songs by Rhianna and Frank Ocean.

Another student in the class, Aina Khan, has parents who immigrated from Kashmir.

“My Kashmiri ethnicity is an integral part of my identity,” she writes, adding she grew up listening to Bollywood music but now gravitates toward Vampire Weekend and Tame Impala.

On the wall opposite the face casts is a collection of oval-shaped plaster casts. They are the size of faces but with no facial features. These represent students in the class project that chose not to have their faces cast. It is a wall of blanks.

“I thought it was a creative way to relate to that wall,” said Thomas standing between the two walls. “But still maintain the right to opacity, the right to not be seen, to not be known, to not be categorized in ways that many collectors did.”

A believer in project-based teaching, Thomas wanted her class to engage creatively with fundamental racial issues in anthropology. Recent news developments of the planned repatriation of the Morton Collection and the discovery of remains of the 1985 MOVE bombing victim inside the Penn Museum, have made those issues current.

“I thought it would be important to respond through the class and to get students to think about the very broad issues that are involved,” she said. “And to learn more about the work of people who are in biological anthropology and bioarcheology, addressing these issues and thinking through ways to make things right.”

“Rotten Foundations, Dangerous Footholds” will be on view until Dec. 21.

Saturdays just got more interesting.

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