An Unusual Display


Although one would never think of displaying such material today, in the past scalps and scalp locks such as those above would have been considered appropriate artifacts for museum exhibits. Until the passing of laws in the 1990’s, scalps were displayed in many museums. This was true, even in Philadelphia. The scalp and scalp locks in this 1921 photo were displayed in Independence Hall (then owned and operated as a museum by the City of Philadelphia) early in the 20th Century.

The scalp and scalp locks were included in a large list of items (like the hatchet and so-called “scalping knife” in this photograph), or Native American “relics” as they were called, borrowed from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania by the City of Philadelphia in 1916 to be displayed in an Independence Hall museum exhibit. The intent of this exhibit was to simply tell a story of the history of the United States, and these particular artifacts were some of the many curators believed would help to do so. As the curator of Independence Hall wrote in 1922 when the Historical Society inquired about the use of the items it had loaned out, the reason the items were requested in the first place was because the City’s curator believed that at Independence Hall the artifacts “could be enjoyed by the public as well as playing an important part in telling the story of the historical periods this group of buildings [i.e. those on Independence Square] covered.”1

Scalping was indeed a part of that story. As uncomfortable as it is to think about now, this practice has been well documented in American history. It was the ancient war practice for some peoples of removing a part of an enemy’s scalp with the hair attached, and was only supposed to be performed on the dead.2 Performed in some cases as a sign of victory and in others as a measure of the number of dead, the practice was, unfortunately, often associated with Native Americans. However, Anglo-Europeans were as guilty as the indigenous peoples of this continent when it came to practicing scalping. Some would even argue that Anglo-European settlers encouraged the practice in addition to participating in it by offering bounties for scalps taken from their Native American enemies.3

The scalp and scalp locks displayed in Independence Hall early in the 20th century were labeled as either “human” or “Indian” at different points in the past (indicating that the source of this material was, ironically, unknown). Although the identities of the scalp and scalp locks are unclear, it is very clear that these items are no longer in the possession of either Independence Hall or the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (to whom the items were returned in 1960).*4 The present whereabouts of this material is unknown. Had either of these institutions, or any institution for that matter, still had this material after 1990, it would have most likely fallen under the control of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA). This act protects Native American cultural items and burial sites. Included among “cultural items” are human remains, excluding things such as hair that was naturally shed or was freely given. When these items were determined to fall under the protection of NAGPRA, they would have been returned to the appropriate tribes.5

Independence Hall has been under the stewardship of the National Park Service since 1950. National Park Service policy forbids the display of human remains, and as such, no artifacts such as the scalp and scalp locks in this historic photo would ever be displayed at a facility owned or managed by the National Park Service.

* We would like to emphasize again that this is a historic photo, dating back almost 90 years. Neither the Historical Society of Pennsylvania nor Independence Hall is in possession of the materials pictured.


  • 1[17 March 1922 Letter from Curator, Independence Hall to Edward S. Sayers, Esq., Series 9: Museum-Loans, 1889-1974/75], The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, with the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies Institutional Records, 1824-2005. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
  • 2 James Truslow Adams. The Founding of New England (Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1921), 15.
  • 3 The Readers Companion to American History ed. Eric Foner and John Arthur Garraty (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991).
  • 4 Karie Diethorn, “1921 Scalp Exhibit-Independence Hall,” 17 August 2006, personal email (21 August 2006).
  • 5 San Francisco State University Department of Anthropology,The ABCs of NAGPRA,2005, (accessed 5 September 2006)