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  • Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums by Samuel J. Redman
  • Courtney E. Thompson
Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums, by Samuel J. Redman. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2016. 408 pp. $29.95 US (cloth).

Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums explores the eponymous spaces in which human remains, skulls and skeletons alike, have been housed in American museums, from their origins in the late nineteenth century to their complicated legacies in the present. Samuel J. Redman highlights in particular the significance of race in the classification, collection, and display of human remains in museums and the role of these remains in the development of physical anthropology. The work further traces the process by which emerging interests in human origins eventually displaced this focus on race within both anthropology and museum collections. This finely researched and engagingly written work provides a much-needed addition to the literature on the history of race in science, as well as histories of physical anthropology, collecting, and museums.

Redman frames one "bone room" as paradigmatic: the human remains collections of the Smithsonian Institution. The early history of the Smithsonian [End Page 369] collections, the efforts and agenda of Aleš Hrdlička, its director, and the long, strange paths skeletal remains took to reach the Smithsonian form a crucial part of Redman's narrative. Some of the most interesting material appears in the second chapter, which describes the "patchwork process of building bone collections through opportunistic acquisition" (110), driven by the "salvage anthropology" conviction that ancient and Indigenous bodies were disappearing. Redman discusses the work of amateur collectors, illicit collection practices, opportunities presented by war and empire, and the role of ethnographers in filling bone rooms. The author underlines the ways in which imperialism enabled collecting, as well as the symbiotic relationship between eugenics and physical anthropology, demonstrating effectively the now-familiar refrain that science is never pure.

Together, the Smithsonian collections and Hrdlička emerge as the driving forces behind the development of physical anthropology. Hrdlička "personified the race to collect bones for emerging museums in the United States" (283), and his mission to set a precedent succeeded, as epitomized by the Smithsonian's massive collections — 33,000 individual sets of human remains by 1989. Redman also provides extended case studies of the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia and the San Diego Museum of Man (chapters three and four, respectively), alongside discussion of other collections, including the Army Medical Museum (chapter one) and the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago (chapter six). Though driven alternately by medical interests and narratives of human origins and evolution, these other bone rooms demonstrate the primacy of race as an organizational and explanatory framework within disparate collections.

Race is thus presented as the raison d'être for bone rooms writ large. By the end of the nineteenth century, Redman notes, "theories surrounding the notion of race and racial difference came to dominate studies of human remains" (20). Nearly two hundred pages later, when discussing the 1930s and 1940s in chapter five, the author observes that despite an emerging focus on human prehistory, "race continued to be dominant in physical anthropology" (203). Thus, with regard to race, "[t]his story is as much about continuity as it is about change" (279). Even as chapter five addresses the rise of cultural anthropology and a new focus on human origins in physical anthropology, the race question lingered. Indeed, the eventual turn away from bones and the isolation of physical anthropology discussed in the sixth chapter coincided with both the decline of scientific racism and the twilight of the museum period in America. The connections between collecting, physical anthropology, and race were thus both enduring and symbiotic. They declined in concert, even as anthropologists turned to human prehistory, and latter-day questions of repatriation, commodification, and ethics loomed. [End Page 370]

In this exploration of bone collecting and anthropology, Redman picks up chronologically and thematically where Ann Fabian's The Skull Collectors: Race, Science, and America's Unburied Dead left off (Chicago, 2010). The two texts read in sequence provide a full examination of the history of...


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pp. 369-371
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