In Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums (Harvard University Press, 2022 for paperback edition), Samuel J. Redman, Associate Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts, uncovers the equally fascinating and disturbing history behind the vast collections of human remains assembled by medical and natural history museums since the mid-nineteenth-century across the United States. The book shows how, in the aftermaths of the Civil War, human remains, and especially those of Indigenous people, were seen as valuable specimens for the advancement of medicine, before turning into crucial pieces of evidence for scientific racism, and eventually serving as material for the study and exhibition of human prehistory.
Bone Rooms charts the trouble waters of the birth and evolution of bone rooms and offers a most timely historical account, as debates around the restitution of human remains and cultural artifacts held in museums have been gaining momentum in the recent years. Behind this important past lies the profound question of how to ensure that the quest for scientific knowledge does not, even if inadvertently, erase the humanity or cultural value of what have been seen as specimens only. As Redman advocates, “Museums can serve as key spaces to attempt to come to terms with the colonial legacy attached to archaeology and anthropology, through partially redressing past wrongs while continuing the search for new knowledge.”
Victor Monnin, Ph.D. is an historian of science specialized in the history of Earth sciences. He is also teaching French language and literature to undergraduates.
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