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Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums

Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums

by Samuel J. Redman

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In 1864 a U.S. army doctor dug up the remains of a Dakota man who had been killed in Minnesota. Carefully recording his observations, he sent the skeleton to a museum in Washington, DC, that was collecting human remains for research. In the “bone rooms” of this museum and others like it, a scientific revolution was unfolding that would change our


In 1864 a U.S. army doctor dug up the remains of a Dakota man who had been killed in Minnesota. Carefully recording his observations, he sent the skeleton to a museum in Washington, DC, that was collecting human remains for research. In the “bone rooms” of this museum and others like it, a scientific revolution was unfolding that would change our understanding of the human body, race, and prehistory.

In Bone Rooms Samuel Redman unearths the story of how human remains became highly sought-after artifacts for both scientific research and public display. Seeking evidence to support new theories of human evolution and racial classification, collectors embarked on a global competition to recover the best specimens of skeletons, mummies, and fossils. The Smithsonian Institution built the largest collection of human remains in the United States, edging out stiff competition from natural history and medical museums springing up in cities and on university campuses across America. When the San Diego Museum of Man opened in 1915, it mounted the largest exhibition of human skeletons ever presented to the public.

The study of human remains yielded discoveries that increasingly discredited racial theory; as a consequence, interest in human origins and evolution—ignited by ideas emerging in the budding field of anthropology—displaced race as the main motive for building bone rooms. Today, debates about the ethics of these collections continue, but the terms of engagement were largely set by the surge of collecting that was already waning by World War II.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 02/22/2016
"There is nothing natural about systematically collecting and studying the dead," writes Redman, assistant professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in this remarkable examination of scientific racism, biological anthropology, and the mission of medical museums. Redman opens his account with a startlingly grim piece of history: the cracked and disfigured remains of a Native American man, who was shot twice by militiamen on the Minnesota frontier in 1864, spent over a century in museum "bone rooms" for study before his remains were finally returned to the Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota Nation for reburial. In the U.S. alone, some 500,000 Native American skeletal specimens are housed in such institutions. Scrutinizing these institutional collections exposes a little-examined corner of the history of medicine, as well as the troubling legacy of racial science left by Aleš Hrdlička, the Czech-born anthropologist whose collection of bones was instrumental in helping to understand human history. "For museums in the United States, even the distant human past represented an opportunity to illuminate the most central of American problems—race," Redman writes. As for the "Dakota man" whose end marked the stark beginning to Redman's meticulous, scholarly history, he teaches another profound lesson: that the study of human prehistory demands both scientific integrity and respect. Illus. (Mar.)
Matthew Dennis
In exquisite detail, propelled by the captivating life stories of a diverse array of scientists and institutions, and backed by extensive archival research, Bone Rooms narrates the rise and fall of racial science in America, embodied in the imperial expropriation of people’s bones. This complicated and engrossing story is filled with unexpected twists and significant implications for the history of anthropology, the history of science and medicine, museum studies, the cultural and intellectual history of race in the United States, and American intellectual history more generally.
Ann Fabian
How did our museums become great storehouses of human remains? What have we learned from the skulls and bones of unburied dead? By following the careers of such figures as enigmatic physical anthropologist Aleš Hrdlička, Samuel Redman’s Bone Rooms chases answers to these questions through shifting ideas about race, anatomy, anthropology, and archaeology and helps explain recent ethical standards for the collection and display of human dead.
Nature - David Hurst Thomas
Bone Rooms details the nascent views of racial science that evolved in U.S. natural history, anthropological and medical museums. These debates spilled into public museum spaces, arraying human bodies in sometimes controversial, even macabre, exhibits. Redman effectively portrays the remarkable personalities behind them, particularly pitting the prickly Aleš Hrdlička at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., against ally-turned-rival Franz Boas at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
Current World Archeology - Brian Fagan
Bone Rooms is a beautifully written, meticulously documented analysis of the little-known history of scientists, human remains, and museum visitors…We could not ask for a better introduction to a sometimes shameful chapter in our scientific past, driven by curiosity and greed, as well as scientific enquiry. Both the general reader and any scholar working on human remains will enjoy this important book.
British Journal for the History of Science - Samuel J. M. M. Alberti
Bone Rooms is an engaging and lively book…[Redman] brings his characters alive, complete with egos and petty jealousies. But more, he encourages us to consider the changing values of human remains in museum collections and their role as the material basis for the disciplinary history of physical anthropology. Bone Rooms will hopefully appeal not only to historians of U.S. science and museums but also to a wider audience interested in the provenance of public collections.
Smithsonian.com - Brian Wolly
Provides much-needed foundation of the relationship between museums and Native Americans.
Public Historian - James T. Watson
Bone Rooms is an accessible piece of public history that can be appreciated by a general audience as well as scholars of the history of science…This book provides a contextualized history of the creation of a particularly unique phenomenon in the Western history of scientific tradition.
Journal of Anthropological Research - Joe Watkins
Redman’s volume offers a glimpse of the personalities and the cultural contexts that have been involved in the exploration of human remains as indicators of characteristics of human diversity—from the flawed construction of ‘race’ to current understanding of our evolutionary history. So long as bone rooms continue to exist, anthropologists and the general public must be aware of the reasons why they came into being and why they continue to exist.
Choice - T. Maxwell-Long
In this remarkably powerful work, which everyone in the museum field should read and that will certainly have a much wider audience, Redman reveals the history of how systemic institutionalized racism that utilized human remains as core content for exhibitions, as well as the storerooms, evolved. In addition to the overall content, one feature that makes this a landmark work is that the author never relies on broad generalizations. Rather, he brings to life details and historical actors and sifts through the complexity, enabling an easily understood story to emerge. This is much more than an institutional history.
Times Literary Supplement - Adam Kuper
Redman delivers an informative narrative.
Library Journal
Redman (history, Univ. of Massachusetts Amherst) covers a lot of ground in this academic work, which documents the evolution of physical anthropology in the United States since the late 19th century and how theories of racial classification and human anatomy were studied and displayed in museums during that time. Mummified corpses discovered in the American West in the 1870s fascinated the public and spurred scientists to expand their understanding of humanity's deep past. This led to controversial theories on race and prehistory (some now debunked) but also prompted legislation to protect valuable archaeological sites from looting. The author spotlights the massive "bone rooms" of human remains collected by the Smithsonian and other medical museums, discoveries from which spawned new kinds of museum exhibits, dubbed "public curios of the macabre," that challenged old narratives of race and prehistory with "a changing kaleidoscope of ideas" and "increasingly complex narratives about the past." Redman charts this evolution well; however, anyone lacking a professional interest in the subject matter might lose interest in places. VERDICT A slightly stuffy survey best suited for scholars and students of museums and physical anthropology.—Chad Comello, Morton Grove P.L., IL

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Samuel J. Redman is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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