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  • Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory by Samuel J. Redman
  • Brian Fagan
Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory. By Samuel J. Redman (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2016) 373 pp. $29.95

Acquisition, curation, repatriation, and reburial—these are but a few of the elements in the controversies that surround human remains and museums. Redman explores this complex history, beginning with the expanding nineteenth-century project to understand human diversity and the more remote past. The resulting collections—from battlefields, excavations of Native American cemeteries, and private estates—found their way into museum “bone rooms,” where experts gathered and organized bones from all parts of the world. The roster of often-competitive players includes such luminaries as Franz Boas, Alfred Kroeber, and Earnest Hooten, as well as Ales Hrdlicka, who amassed the Smithsonian Institution’s vast collection.

Initially, much of the research revolved around eugenics. But, as Redman points out, institutional histories and the collection of human remains were closely connected, as were visitors’ reactions to the skeletons on display in museums. He begins with two chapters covering discoveries that captivated broader audiences, such as studies of race. Then he examines the history of the medicine-based Mutter Museum in Philadelphia and the San Diego Museum of Man, which was thought, in 1915, to have the largest exhibition involving race and prehistory—one of the first attempts to blend artistic representations of anthropological ideas with actual skeletons and mummies. Human remains in museums, in fact, provided a striking mirror of the rise and fall of scientific racism in the [End Page 245] United States. As theories of racial classification became discredited, however, scholars shifted their focus to a longer view of human history. New discoveries changed ideas about anthropology both inside and outside museums.

Redman’s intent is to provide a context for the history of “bone rooms.” He does not enter fully into the current debates surrounding such collections, nor into the ethical issues that surround them. The numbers of Native Americans alone that were in the collections are staggering—about 500,000 in U.S. museums alone and another half-million in European institutions. The early history of these remains was dramatic; their acquisitions were often motivated by ego and intellect and sometimes by an unethical desire to acquire more skeletal material than competitors could. Today, we tend to view the complex moral issues surrounding such procedures as repatriation more in terms of a craving for scientific knowledge than a mere lust for accumulating specimens. Whether such exhibits as Body Worlds, or the displays in Las Vegas casinos, are morally acceptable ways to treat deceased humans in the first place is another matter altogether. We have inherited a delicate legacy. How do we show respect, acquire new knowledge from human remains, and also redress past wrongs?

Bone Rooms is a beautifully written, meticulously documented analysis of a complex and little-known history involving scientists, human remains, and museum visitors. Redman provides us with the murky historical background that underlies our ongoing study of humanity. We could not ask for a better introduction to a sometimes shameful chapter in our scientific past, often fueled as much by pride and greed as by scientific inquiry. Both the general reader and any scholar working on human remains will enjoy this important book.

Brian Fagan
University of California, Santa Barbara


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pp. 245-246
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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