Samuel J. Redman, Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums

Samuel J Redman, Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press 2016) 373 pp. $29.95 Hb. ISBN: 978-0-674-66041-0

Samuel J Redman’s Bone Rooms chronicles the growth of collection of human remains in American museums from the time of the Civil War through to the twentieth century.  Redman aims in this volume to provide a contextual overview of the history of what became colloquially known as ‘bone rooms’ (hence the title) and in doing so, to demonstrate the cultural significance of these collections historically.  Redman provides an engaging museological study, and Bone Rooms is a clear, concise overview of the creation of collections of human remains, providing context for the current ethical quandary that many museums and organisations that hold human remains now face. Bone Rooms also provides a commentary on why human remains collections remain valid resources for historians and scientists alike.  These collections were and still are valuable resources for examining the materiality of the body as a whole and in individual parts, and the study of these collections enables understanding of various cultural ideas, particularly those surrounding death and burial.

Fuelled by a desire to understand humanity and carried out primarily by a network of scholars, medical professionals and scientists, there was nonetheless a central focus on race for collectors of human remains in America and the collectors and curators of these bone rooms undertook a global search for remains to answer their queries.  In doing so they built impressive and extensive collections.  Redman quite rightly stresses continually the significance of race in the debates, questions and motivations behind collecting and engaging with research into human remains in America.

Divided into six chapters, plus prologue and epilogue, Bone Rooms follows the collection of remains of individuals for study by anthropologists and in medical museums.  Redman outlines the structure of his work in the prologue, whilst the first two chapters, ‘Collecting Bodies for Science’ and ‘Salvaging Race and Remains’ cover the collecting of bodies for scientific purposes, and introduce a key individual, Aleš Hrdlička, anthropologist at the Smithsonian who was an avid and sometimes obstreperous assembler of human remains for his collection.  In these chapters Bone Rooms indicates the fascination from the outset particularly for American remains, and the significance of race from the ou, as ‘[when] new bodies were discovered, the first questions usually focused on the racial origin of the mysterious bodies and their relationship to the modern races of the Americas’ (16).  The relationship between collectors, moreover, was not always friendly, as ‘museums variously became rivals, trading partners, and collaborators in efforts to fill bone rooms with remains from around the world (21).  These chapters also begin to illustrate the popular appetite for such things, through literary productions and exhibitions at museums and fairs.

Redman also charts the difficulty of storing and organising such collections, not to mention problems caused by their often dubious provenance.  The display of such objects to the public was also problematic, though Redman acknowledges that the reasoning behind objections to them remains unclear.

Chapters Three and Four, ‘The Medical Body on Display’ and ‘The Story of Man through the Ages’ offer interesting case studies contextualising the creation of the Mütter Museum and the early development of the San Diego Museum of Man.  Chapter Five, ‘Scientific Racism and Museum Remains’ charts the fall of scientific racism, partially through the efforts of physical anthropologists, including Franz Boas and W Montague Cobb.  The transition was not a sudden one, but rather a lengthy process.  As Redman points out, ‘Cobb’s work served as something of a bellwether for the trends to come, as new generations of physical anthropologists worked to further break down heretofore dominant ideas about the existence of particular races that were thought to be scientifically classifiable through the detailed study of the human body’ (215).

The final chapter, ‘Skeletons and Human Prehistory’, examines ideas of prehistory and how these began to edge out race in discussions and displays of human remains, though the transition away from racial classification had already begun, in the work of Cobb and other anthropologists, as Redman demonstrates in the previous chapter.  Popular consensus also played a role in this, as ‘[new] discoveries related to prehistory fuelled growing desires to see prehistory on display’ (231) – though as Bone Rooms wryly notes, the journalistic take on prehistoric existence sometimes erred on the side of the fantastic.  Moreover, around the 1930s, ‘the pushback of indigenous peoples against collecting human remains started to become visibly apparent in internal museum correspondence’ (255), and the work of physical anthropologists and medical professionals began to move away into other areas of interest, including the study of soft tissue.

This is an engaging and illuminating work providing context for the growth of human remains collections in the United States.  Redman demonstrates just how thoroughly such collections and the practice of collecting itself was saturated in the discourse of race, to the extent that it even produced conflicting opinions on the value of bodies to science and collections (especially considering the scramble for specifically American history. and the accompanying disdain for American natives with whom these collections frequently originated).

Bone Rooms provides a comprehensive museological understanding of the collection of human remains, and the epilogue gestures to the development not only of the collections since the Second World War, but also of general understanding of the use and holding of these collections.  Redman is sensitive to current issues but very clear on how saturated these collections are in discourses of race and just how problematic this legacy is.  Bone Rooms provides profiles of several key figures in anthropology of the time period, none more so than Aleš Hrdlička.  Hrdlička does not come across as an easy contemporary, and, as Redman highlights, his legacy is problematic too, given the ethical and moral questions that are now being asked regarding the retention of human remains, particularly of indigenous individuals.  Redman, however, does not shy away from these difficult questions, and frankly acknowledges the difficult legacy left behind which is only being addressed incrementally by the American government, and remains unresolved.

Katherine Ford, The Science Museum, London