Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums

Harvard Univ. Mar. 2016. 390p. photos. notes. index. ISBN 9780674660410. $29.95. ANTHRO
Redman (history, Univ. of Massachusetts Amherst) covers a lot of ground in this academic work, which documents the evolution of physical anthropology in the United States since the late 19th century and how theories of racial classification and human anatomy were studied and displayed in museums during that time. Mummified corpses discovered in the American West in the 1870s fascinated the public and spurred scientists to expand their understanding of humanity's deep past. This led to controversial theories on race and prehistory (some now debunked) but also prompted legislation to protect valuable archaeological sites from looting. The author spotlights the massive "bone rooms" of human remains collected by the Smithsonian and other medical museums, discoveries from which spawned new kinds of museum exhibits, dubbed "public curios of the macabre," that challenged old narratives of race and prehistory with "a changing kaleidoscope of ideas" and "increasingly complex narratives about the past." Redman charts this evolution well; however, anyone lacking a professional interest in the subject matter might lose interest in places.
VERDICT A slightly stuffy survey best suited for scholars and students of museums and physical anthropology.
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