“Ethnographical busts”

“Ethnographical busts”

This plaster cast is one of eight in the collection of the Haffenreffer Museum. They’re a bit of a mystery; there’s no paperwork on them. And they’re not the sort of thing the museum traditionally collected. They came from the American Museum of Natural History, in New York, in the 1980s. That’s about as much as we knew.

As much as we knew from the object, anyway. As historians, anthropologists, and curators, we knew that these figures of “races of the world” were common in anthropology museums at the turn of the 20th century, part of an attempt to classify all aspects of nature, and humanity, and, often part of a system of scientific racism.

I wanted to know more. The first step of the modern researcher is to send email, and so I wrote to the archivist at AMNH. The second is to look online. There are several articles on related topics, and Google Books, the Internet Archives, and the AMNH have scanned and digitized many of the early publications of the museum. Finally, looking at the real thing: the Brown University Library has an extensive run of AMNH publications. There are annual reports, guides to the museums, scientific reports, and more. (Great material for student papers!) Some late-night reading, a few more emails, and I had the story pretty well figured out. (Thanks to  Kristen Mable and Barbara Mathé at the museum, and to Michael Rossi, at MIT, for their very speedy and very helpful replies to my requests for information.)

I think I’ve figured out the story of these busts now. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

Researching objects is fun! But why these objects? I’ve got an exhibit in mind. More on that later.

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