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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 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.
1. Collecting Bodies for Science
2. Salvaging Race and Remains
3. The Medical Body on Display
4. The Story of Man through the Ages
5. Scientific Racism and Museum Remains
6. Skeletons and Human Prehistory
Samuel J. Redman is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
"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 Hrdlicka at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC against ally-turned-rival Franz Boas at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City."
– David Hurst Thomas, Nature
"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."
– Brian Fagan, Current World Archeology
"[A] remarkable examination of scientific racism, biological anthropology, and the mission of medical museums."
– Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"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."
– Matthew Dennis, author of Seneca Possessed
"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 Hrdlicka, 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."
– Ann Fabian, author of The Skull Collectors