Penn Museum Closes Temporarily During Protest Over MOVE Remains

The Penn Museum on the University of Pennsylvania campus unexpectedly closed its doors last week after protesters entered the building and demanded to see the remains of Delisha Africa, who was 12 years old when she was murdered along with four children and six adults in the 1985 MOVE Bombing. Based out of West Philadelphia, MOVE is a predominantly Black organization that vigorously opposes institutional hegemonic norms and modern technological conventions. Often associated with the ’70s Black Power movement, the group was founded by John Africa, who was killed along with his followers when the organization’s townhouse headquarters on 6221 Osage Avenue was bombed by Philadelphia police with a C-4 explosive.

At 9:30am on August 31, Finding Ceremony organizers Abdul-Aliy A. Muhammad and Dr. Lyra Monteiro, alongside surviving family members of the MOVE bombing victims, held a press conference outside the Penn Museum’s main entrance on South Street. The organizers and family members accused the museum of continuing to hold on to the bone fragments of Delisha Africa, whose parents were both incarcerated at the time of the bombing.

In 2021, the institution returned the remains of 14-year-old Katricia Dotson (Tree Africa) to her surviving family members in response to reports separately published by Muhammad and reporter Maya Kassutto that found that the Penn Museum had retained her remains and those of Delisha. Muhammad also previously reported on the cranial remains of enslaved individuals held in the museum’s Morton Collection and called for their repatriation. The Penn Museum maintains that it has returned “all known MOVE remains” in its collection.

Muhammad and Monteiro told Hyperallergic that they entered the building after initially being barred from the main entrance. According to a museum spokesperson, the two organizers “stepped inside a glass office space near the East Entrance on the ground level, prompting staff working in the space to leave.” 

An officer stands outside the educational programming office space where organizers allege they were temporarily detained. (photo by and courtesy Abdul-Aliy A. Muhammad)

Organizers and the Philly Voice reported that the museum closed its doors to the public at approximately 12:45pm. A museum spokesperson further clarified in a statement to Hyperallergic that the closure was “temporary” and that “staff and Penn students taking classes had access to the building through an alternate entrance.”

Muhammad and Monteiro both told Hyperallergic that they were “shocked” by the level of response from the museum’s contracted security, which they identified as Penn Police and the Philadelphia Police. (Neither police department has responded to Hyperallergic’s requests for more information.)

Once inside the museum, the two organizers claim they were “detained” inside an educational programming office, which was guarded by officers both inside and outside the room from 10:37am until 11:13am, according to the Finding Ceremony press release. Refuting this allegation, a museum spokesperson maintained in a statement that “the door was never locked and no one was detained.”

Muhammad and Monteiro stayed inside the museum and insisted on meeting with Penn Museum Director Christopher Woods that day.

“The individuals remained in the space of their own volition, with the door open, until exiting to meet with University leaders Thursday afternoon,” a museum spokesperson said. “The Division of Public Safety remained onsite to monitor the situation throughout its duration.”

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Officers standing inside the Penn Museum while organizers wait to meet Director Woods. (photo by and courtesy Abdul-Aliy A. Muhammad)

When Muhammad and Monteiro finally did meet with Woods around 5pm, he was accompanied by Reverend Chaz Lattimore Howard, the University’s vice president for social equity and community. The organizers said that both Woods and Howard refused to “look properly” at photos of former Penn Museum curator Janet Monge, whom they allege lied to investigators about the MOVE remains in her possession.

“Janet Monge did not turn over all the remains of MOVE children in 2021,” Muhammad said during the press conference. “There are still remains unaccounted for, and photo evidence that these remains were in her possession and at the Penn Museum.” Muhammad also shared their statement online.

The allegations are based on recently discovered photographic evidence in which Monge stands by a table covered in bone fragments that Muhammad argues match those belonging to Delisha. Among the evidence cited by Muhammad is the presence of labels in the photograph that appear to read “MOVE.”

Hyperallergic has reviewed the photograph, which is publicly available. We could not independently verify the claims.

In 2022, Monge filed a civil complaint against Muhammad, Hyperallergic, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and other news outlets, alleging defamation. Monge’s lawyer, Allan B. Epstein, has not yet responded to Hyperallergic‘s request for comment; Epstein told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the claims were “nothing new” and declined to comment further, citing pending litigation.

Following last week’s protest events, a museum spokesperson delivered the following email statement to Hyperallergic:

Penn Museum reunited all known MOVE remains with the Africa Family in July 2021. The Museum has fully cooperated with all prior independent investigations and is committed to reviewing any new evidence pertaining to the MOVE remains should it emerge. University leaders met with the individuals who were at the Museum Thursday and will investigate the information they provided to the fullest extent. We will continue to share updates at Towards a Respectful Resolution.

The Finding Ceremony organizers continue to demand that officials close the museum “until they determine what happened to the MOVE remains not returned to the families in 2021.” The organizers also ask that the university commence an audit of its digital archives to determine whether “other graphic and harmful material about human remains is online and available to the public.”

“One thing that stands out to me again is that even if institutions are still not doing a good job and are still dodging their responsibilities, there is increasing public awareness and public outrage on a very different level than there was even five years ago,” Monteiro said, citing both the ProPublica journalistic investigation into museums’ failure to repatriate Indigenous ancestors and the Washington Post report on the Smithsonian’s “racial brain collection.” 

“It’s not actually all that different from all of the other cases particularly in the context of colonial violence around the world,” Monteiro said. “It’s part of what museums do and part of what museums have always done.”

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