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Repatriating A Skull From the Philippines

This past July, I accepted the fellowship position at the Samek Art Museum at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, PA. Many of the museum positions I’ve held in the past were education based. So, scoring this curatorial fellowship is a huge step toward building the career I want, even in the midst of COVID-19. It’s an exciting time that’s so far consisted of research, creating and recreating schedules, hiring and training student employees, and being tasked with the heaviest of projects: the repatriation of a broken human skull. According to records, the skull was gifted to the then Natural History Museum at the University in 1935 from an ancient burial cave on Bohol – an island if the Philippines. The donor had graduated from the University in 1907 with a B.S. in Biology, the first in institutional history. The collection of the Natural History Museum had burned in 1932, when the building caught fire; the skull was given in attempt to help build back up the collection. However, there were no other records on the skull, to the point that when a relocation project commenced in 2018 with the Art Museum’s off-site storage, staff didn’t know that it was there! And as the one person on staff who had some sort of experience with repatriation, I was tasked with making sure it’s returned.

(C) Sarah Hixson; In Bucknell University Special Collections/University Archives (SCUA) reading original letter from Dr. Gilbert S. Perez to Dr. Nelson Fithian Davis regarding skull. See full letter (pages 1 & 2) below.

What I Know

In 1932, the Museum of Natural History at Bucknell University (BU) was housed in the building that has become known as “Old Main”. In August of that year, the building caught fire, taking most of the collection with it, as well as dormitories, classrooms, and recitation space for the University. The BU community was awestruck – what were they going to do? Alums, students, faculty and staff set to search for new objects for the museum. In 1935, Dr. Gilbert S. Perez (Class of 1907) sent the director, Dr. Nelson Fithian Davis, a skull and accompanying bracelet from a “burial cave on the island of Bohol” in an attempt to help build up the collection of the Natural History Museum again. Perez stated in the letter that accompanied the skull and bracelet that the skull was broken when he removed it from its tomb, as it had become attached to some petrified rock.

There had been no other mention of the skull’s existence in the collection until it was discovered in a relocation project for off-site storage in 2018.

What I’ve Done So Far

One of the hardest parts of repatriation work is knowing who to contact. For this international repatriation, I started with the Embassy of the Philippines. I also contacted BU’s General Counsel, since the University has a legal team already, just in case we needed them; I wanted them to be aware of every step. After a month, and several follow up emails, I heard back from the Embassy and was provided the contact information for a woman who worked in the Ethnology Department

(C) Sarah Hixson; above: first page of letter from Dr. Perez to Dr. Davis outlining the theft of the skull. Right: page 2 of the letter. Found in correspondence to Dr. Davis in SCUA

of the National Museum of the Philippines in Manila. As of 9/29/2021, we had our first steps for moving forward with the repatriation.

What’s Next

In addition to sending copies of the correspondence and object records to the National Museum of the Philippines, the Registrar and I are going to rehouse the skull, so it is in an acid-free environment and bring it to our campus storage facility/ office spaces. This isn’t for observation, but out of respect for human life. Even though the intention isn’t to keep it in perpetuity, we are responsible for it and to it while we have it.

After finding the envelope that housed the bracelet mentioned in letters and the object record, we now know that it was here… we just have to find it.

(C) Sarah Hixson; original envelope that held the bracelet ("Tortoise shell Bracelet found in prehistoric Burial cave in Anda, Bohol [Island] [Philippine Islands] by Gilbert S. Perez Sept. 1913. In same wooden coffin with skull which is included in this shipment."). Found in correspondence to Dr. Nelson Fithian Davis from a third party on Dr. Perez's behalf in SCUA; the whereabouts of the bracelet are unknown.

Sarah Hixson (she/her) is an emerging museum curator and educator working in the intersections of decolonization work, social activism, and complicating historical narratives. Currently, she's working as the Museum Fellow at the Samek Art Museum at Bucknell University. If you have questions for her, please email us at and she'll get back to you as soon as possible.

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