2020 (page 2 of 2)

Event: “At the Bridge: James Teit and an Anthropology of Belonging”–A Virtual Discussion with Wendy Wickwire

Every once in a while, an important figure makes an appearance, makes a difference, and then disappears from the public record. James Teit (1864-1922) was such a figure. 

Join Dr. Wendy Wickwire in conversation with Brian Carpenter, Curator of Native American Materials at the American Philosophical Society, as they discuss Teit’s life and work and the continued impact of the records he left behind.

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CFP: “Relationships, Reciprocity, and Responsibilities: Indigenous Studies in Archives and Beyond,” American Philosophical Society, September 24-26, 2020

Building on the collaborative, community-engaged work of the American Philosophical Society’s Center for Native American and Indigenous Research (CNAIR), the APS Library & Museum launched The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Native American Scholars Initiative (NASI) in 2016 to foster the development of the next generation of Indigenous and allied students and scholars. 

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CFP: Panel on “Historical Consciousness and Historicist Reckonings with the Anthropological Present,” American Anthropological Association, November 18-22, 2020

Grant Arndt, Iowa State, is seeking a few more participants for a panel on the relationship between research into the history of anthropology and the modes of historical self-consciousness evident in contemporary anthropological work.  

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‘Savages, Romans, and Despots’ by Robert Launay

Robert Launay. Savages, Romans, and Despots: Thinking about Others from Montaigne to Herder. 272 pp., notes, bibl., index. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018. $32.50 (paper), $97.50 (cloth), $10-32.50 (e-book)

Since its inception, Edward Said’s Orientalism has enjoyed tremendous and well-deserved influence across the humanities and social sciences.[1] While this text has never been without its critics,[2] Said’s underlying assertion that representations of the “other” have been intimately embedded in imperial domination has contributed to a disciplinary commonplace that assumes European imaginings of non-Europeans are inevitably and eternally domineering. It is this overextension (and perhaps simplification) of Said’s thesis that Robert Launay critically addresses in Savages, Romans, and Despots: Thinking about Others from Montaigne to Herder.

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CFP: American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting, St. Louis, MO, November 18-22

The History of Anthropology Interest Group at the American Anthropological Association encourages the organization of panels and events related to history of anthropology for this year’s annual meeting in St. Louis, MO (November 18-22). Submissions must be started by April 3rd and are due by April 8th. Visit the AAA’s website for information on how to submit proposals.

The HOA Interest Group would also appreciate information on HOA related panels and events being planned for the meeting. Messages may be sent directly to the listserv address: history-of-anthropology@virginia.edu.

“A Little Out of Temper”: When Lewis Henry Morgan Met Abraham Lincoln

2018 marked the bicentennial of the birth of Lewis Henry Morgan (d. 1881), a Rochester, New York attorney and founding figure in American anthropology and archeology. Morgan established his reputation with League of the Ho-dé-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois (Morgan 1851), a comprehensive study of sociopolitical organization and material culture that grew out of his youthful fascination with Native American traditions. The book was made possible by the assistance of Ely S. Parker (Hasanoanda), who authored some sections, and his sister Caroline G. Parker (Gahano), members of a prominent Tonawanda Seneca family who facilitated Morgan’s fieldwork. Although manifestly ethnocentric, League of the Iroquois is one of the earliest recognizably anthropological accounts of culture as a distinctive and coherent system of thought and action. Morgan’s dedication of the book to Ely Parker acknowledges the fundamental if uneasy collaboration between anthropologists and their interlocutors that underlies all ethnographic research.[1]

Morgan’s next two books featured other innovations. The American Beaver and His Works (1868) was based on unprecedented field observations of the behavior of these animals in their engineered environments. In Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family (1871), Morgan analyzed a vast amount of data acquired through a questionnaire he designed to elicit the divergent logics of kinship terminologies used by speakers of many different languages worldwide.   

In Morgan’s best-known work, Ancient Society, Or Researches in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery, through Barbarism to Civilization (1877), he laid out a materialist scheme of universal history. The book was taken up by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and turned into a staple of socialist reading groups, despite Morgan’s firm belief in the benefits of individual property and free markets. Today, critics remember Ancient Society for its association with social evolutionism and Victorian ideas of racial hierarchy and white supremacy (for example, Gates Jr. 2019:68; see also Baker 1998: 43ff, and Harris 1968: 137ff).

Morgan bequeathed his field journals, scholarly papers, and library, along with a substantial sum of money, to the University of Rochester. These materials offer only limited insights into Morgan’s personal affairs, thus presenting a challenge to his biographers.[2] I therefore was intrigued to discover among the published correspondence of Abraham Lincoln a brief reference to a hitherto unreported meeting between the president and Morgan.  According to Lincoln, the encounter ended unhappily. What was this meeting about, and why might Morgan have gone away, in Lincoln’s words, “a little out of temper”?


On June 2, 1864, Joseph Henry, Director of the Smithsonian Institution, wrote to Lincoln to introduce his “much esteemed friends” Morgan and Professor Eben Horsford of Cambridge, “who desire to place before you, a case of military discipline” (Basler 1953: 378).  Four days later, Morgan and Horsford visited Lincoln in Washington, D.C. and appealed to him for the pardon of Private James McCarthy of the 140th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, who faced the charge of desertion. McCarthy’s regiment was organized in Rochester, where Morgan resided, and its ten companies were recruited from the city and its surrounding Monroe County.  

Lincoln refused Morgan and Horsford’s request, and the two unsuccessful petitioners departed. Soon afterwards, however, Lincoln telegraphed Major General George G. Meade, head of the Army of the Potomac, proposing that if Private McCarthy’s “Colonel and you consent, I will send him to his regiment” (Basler 1953:378). Meade responded to Lincoln the next day, June 7th.  His telegram noted that “private James McCarthey of Co ‘K’ 140th” had been

apprehended by our Pickets attempting to pass our Lines towards the enemy when arrested. He attempted to bribe the Pickets to allow him to pass. I cannot recommend any mitigation of the sentence in his case (Basler 1953:385). 

The sentence in McCarthy’s case was confinement and hard labor at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas (Florida Keys), which in 1864 housed over 700 prisoners convicted by court-martial. A register of the 140th NY includes this listing for a James McCarty, quite possibly the man on whose behalf Morgan interceded:

Age, 21 years. Enlisted at Sherman [NY], to serve three years, and mustered in as private, Co. K, August 19, 1863; transferred to Co. K, Fifth Veteran Infantry, June 3, 1865, while absent in confinement (New York 1905:124).      

On June 10th, 1864 Lincoln forwarded Meade’s telegram to Joseph Henry with the following endorsement:

A few days ago a friend of yours called and urged me to pardon Private McCarthy, & upon my refusal, went away dissatisfied, and I thought a little out of temper. After he was gone, I telegraphed Gen. Meade that if he and McCarthy’s Colonel would consent, I would send him back to his Regiment; and the within is Gen. Meade’s answer (Basler 1953:385).  

Although Lincoln’s note to Henry does not specify the friend who went away dissatisfied, the following endorsement by Joseph Henry, dated August 16th, 1864, suggests that the friend in question was indeed Lewis Henry Morgan: “I send this paper to you as an evidence that Mr. Lincoln desired to do what is proper in the case you and Professor Horsford presented to him. It has lain in my portfolio for several weeks” (Basler 1953:385).

I have not found any reference to the meeting with Lincoln or to the situation of Private McCarthy in Morgan’s papers, neither in his correspondence with Joseph Henry, with whom Morgan was then collaborating on the research and publication of Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity, nor in his correspondence with Eben N. Horsford, a Harvard chemist who was a close friend of Morgan and his wife, Mary Elizabeth (Steele) Morgan. I suggest, nevertheless, that we can better appreciate Morgan’s dissatisfaction with Lincoln by considering Morgan’s previous failed attempts to obtain a federal post and to influence federal Indian policy.


In 1861, Morgan aspired to a federal appointment as Commissioner of Indian Affairs.  He served that year in the New York State Assembly in order to acquire relevant experience, swapping his appointment as chairman of the Committee on Claims for one as chairman of the Committee on Indian Affairs (Resek 1960:83). Morgan also hoped for the support of his fellow New Yorker and Union College alumnus William Henry Seward, who had lost the nomination to Abraham Lincoln at the Republican presidential convention.  After the November election, Morgan’s friends wrote testimonials to the president-elect in support of Morgan’s appointment as commissioner.  Lincoln, however, gave the job to William P. Dole, thereby redeeming the promise made in a deal that secured Indiana’s 26 votes at the Republican convention (Nichols 1978:5; Prucha 1984:463).

In December 1862, Lewis Henry Morgan wrote to Abraham Lincoln regarding “the present system of Indian management.”  He bluntly informed the president that the system “is a total failure, a failure so complete as to be disgraceful to the government” (Kosok 1951:36). Morgan drew upon personal observations made during four consecutive summer trips starting in 1859 to Kansas, Nebraska and far up the Missouri River into Dakota (Morgan 1959).  He offered several recommendations for reforming the corruption of Indian agencies and reorganizing the payment of annuities.  Morgan also recommended that “territory sufficient to form two Indian states should be set aside by Congress,” thus forming a “permanent society, in two nations, under government protection and encouragement” (Kosok 1951:36, 37).

Morgan subsequently aired many of the same ideas on Indian policy that he had expressed to Lincoln in two letters published in The Nation in 1876 following Custer’s defeat at Little Big Horn.  (The first of these letters is notable for Morgan’s defense of the Sioux and his refusal to call Custer’s defeat a “massacre.”)  In August 1877, Morgan wrote directly to Rutherford B. Hayes, reiterating his main ideas.  (Upon Hayes’s inauguration in March, Morgan had begun again to solicit testimonials from friends in support of a presidential appointment as ambassador to Italy. He did not receive this or any other appointment.)[3] The following year, The Nation published a revised and slightly longer version of the letter sent to President Hayes.

While Morgan’s letter to Hayes was acknowledged by the president’s secretary of the interior, Carl Schurz, it is uncertain whether Morgan’s 1862 letter was ever read or even received by President Lincoln.  Paul Kosok (1951:35) reports finding it with an appended official note that implies Morgan’s recommendations were “just filed away among the records of the Secretary of the Interior—and forgotten.”  I have found no reply from Lincoln or his staff to Morgan’s letter in the correspondence included among his papers at the University of Rochester.

Lewis Henry Morgan was disappointed at losing the position of Commissioner of Indian Affairs because of Lincoln’s political patronage of a less qualified candidate.  He might also have been annoyed by the lack of a response to the policy recommendations he sent to Lincoln.  Given these circumstances, Lincoln’s remark that his refusal to pardon Private McCarthy left his visitor “a little out of temper” becomes perhaps more understandable. Morgan was simply responding to the latest discourtesy shown him by the president.


[1] Ely S. Parker went on to become a Tonawanda Seneca sachem chief and acquired the name Donehogawa. He served as a Union Army General and military secretary to Ulysses S. Grant. Grant appointed Parker in 1869 as Commissioner of Indian Affairs, the first Native person to serve in this role.

[2] See Carl Resek, Lewis Henry Morgan: American Scholar (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960); Daniel Noah Moses, The Promise of Progress: The Life and Work of Lewis Henry Morgan (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2009).

[3] August 6, 1877 Letter from Lewis Henry Morgan to President Rutherford B. Hayes; Box 8, Folder 15, Lewis Henry Morgan papers, A.M85, Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation, River Campus Libraries, University of Rochester.


Works Cited.

Basler, Roy P., ed. 1953. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 7. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Baker, Lee D. 1998. From Savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of Race, 1896 – 1954. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. 2019. Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow. New York: Penguin.

Harris, Marvin. 1968. The Rise of Anthropological Theory: A History of Theories of Culture. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell.

Kosok, Paul. 1951. An Unknown Letter from Lewis H. Morgan to Abraham Lincoln. University of Rochester Library Bulletin 6(2):35 – 40.

Morgan, Lewis H. 1851. League of the Ho-dé-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois. New York: Sage and Brother Publishers.

Morgan, Lewis H. 1876. The Hue-and-Cry Against the Indians. The Nation (Number 577), 20 July, pp. 40-41.

Morgan, Lewis H. 1876. Factory System for Indian Reservations. The Nation (Number 578), 27 July, pp. 58-59.

Morgan, Lewis H. 1868. The American Beaver and His Works. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott.

Morgan, Lewis H. 1871. Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution. 

Morgan, Lewis H. 1877. Ancient Society, or Researches in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery, through Barbarism, to Civilization. London: Macmillan. 

Morgan, Lewis H. 1878. The Indian Question. The Nation (Number 700), 28 November, pp. 332-333.

Morgan, Lewis H. 1959. The Indian Journals, 1859 – 62. Leslie A. White, ed. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Moses, Daniel N. 2009. The Promise of Progress: The Life and Work of Lewis Henry Morgan. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

New York (State). 1905. Annual Report of the Adjutant General of the State of New York for the Year 1904. Albany: Brandow Printing Company, State Legislative Printers.

Nichols, David A. 1978. Lincoln and the Indians: Civil War Policy and Politics. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

Prucha, Paul F. 1984. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Resek, Carl. 1960. Lewis Henry Morgan: American Scholar. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Latest Additions to the Bibliography, March 2020

This page displays our most recent batch of citations; a comprehensive bibliography of citations we’ve collected since 2016 (going back as far as 2013) and a search tool are also available.

We welcome suggestions from readers. If you come across something of interest during your own fieldwork in the library, whether that be physical or virtual, please let us know by emailing us at bibliographies@histanthro.org.

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Researching A Passion for the True and Just

Editor’s Note: Alice B. Kehoe works in both archaeology and American First Nations histories, seeing the continuum between American archaeology and the histories of the nations whose sites are studied.  She explains here how her training in Boasian anthropology prepared her to write A Passion for the True and Just: Felix and Lucy Kramer Cohen and the Indian New Deal.

In the late 1970s, I began to read key works in history/philosophy of science, attempting to figure out Lewis Binford’s naïve notion of scientific method that was somehow attracting disciples in American archaeology.[i] Not until, decades later, when I read Mark Solovey’s account of Cold War strategy promoting the physical sciences,[ii] and George Reisch’s description of McCarthyism curtailing humanistic dimensions of philosophy of science,[iii] could I understand how Binford’s cold “objective” version of archaeology fit the tenor of the time, winning National Science Foundation funds and graduate students. Binford’s “New Archaeology” was also deeply colonialist, abjuring any historical approach to “prehistoric” America (endnote 5). Barry Barnes and Steven Shapin’s Natural Order woke me up.[iv] Rationality is, as Peter Novick would have said, a “noble dream.”[v] Cultural context is key.  

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‘The Lost Black Scholar’ by David A. Varel

David A. Varel. The Lost Black Scholar: Resurrecting Allison Davis in American Social Thought. 304pp., 16 halftones, notes, index. University of Chicago Press, 2018. $45 (cloth)

David Varel’s biography of Allison Davis, The Lost Black Scholar, is aptly named. Davis is rarely cited by anthropologists today, but he has little in common with the “excluded ancestors and invisible traditions” after whom a volume of the History of Anthropology series was named.[1] On the contrary, Davis was hardly invisible. Rather, he was a remarkably well-known, highly-respected figure who was important intellectually and institutionally in anthropology, someone whose story and influence has not been repressed or erased but, as Varel puts it, “lost.” In this trim and athletic volume, Varel successfully shows us the importance of Davis’s work and life, revealing a remarkable scholar who should be remembered for his incredible personal story, his intellectual contributions to the study of structural injustice, and his role as a model of a politically committed but non-activist scholar.

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New Resource: Ricardo A. Fagoaga’s “Primeras etnografías en México: su método, su olvido y la construcción de una idea la antropología mexicana.”

The History of Anthropology Review (HAR) is pleased to announce the recent publication of Ricardo A. Fagoaga‘s book chapter: “Primeras etnografías en México: su método, su olvido y la construcción de una idea la antropología mexicana.”

In this chapter, Fagoaga explores the history of the Huasteca expedition, an ethnographic fieldwork project carried out by María Atienza, Isabel Gamboa and Luz Islas during the early twentieth century. A short description of the chapter, along with its citation information, can be found below:

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Funding Opportunity: Native American Scholars Initiative (NASI) Internship at the American Philosophical Society Library & Museum

The Native American Scholars Initiative (NASI) Undergraduate Summer Internship offered by the American Philosophical Society Library & Museum in Philadelphia provides an opportunity for three talented undergraduates to conduct research, to explore career possibilities in archives and special collections, and to learn about advanced training in Native American and Indigenous Studies and related fields.

The internship will take place in the summer of 2020, and interns will receive a stipend of between $3,000-$3,500 depending on housing costs. The deadline for applications is Friday, February 14, 2020. Further information about the internship and application process can be found below:

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New Resource: New articles on History of Anthropology in Middle America, Latin America and Mexico

The History of Anthropology Review (HAR) is happy to announce the recent publication of three articles on history of anthropology and
anthropological research in Middle America, Latin America and Mexico.

  • Stefan Krotz, “Zur Forschungsgeschichte in Mesoamerika,” in Eveline Dürr y Henry Kammler, Hrsg., eds., Einführung in die Ethnologie Mesoamerikas. Ein Handbuch zu den indigenen Kulturen (Waxmann Verlag, 2018), 127-13.
  • Stefan Krotz, “Overseas, Continental, and Internal Colonialism: Responses from Latin American Anthropologies,” in Dittmar Schorkowitz, John R. Chávez and Ingo W. Schröder, eds., Shifting Forms of Continental Colonialism: Unfinished Struggles and Tensions (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), 71-94.
  • Esteban Krotz, “Claves para una estilística de la antropología política de Brigitte Boehm,” Relaciones, vol. 40, no. 157 (2019): 113-122.

HAR welcomes announcement suggestions from readers. If you have a recent publication, or come across an event, resource or CFP of interest, please let us know by emailing us at news@historyofanthropology.org

New Resource: Patricia Ferraz de Matos’ “Racial and Social Prejudice in the Colonial Empire: Issues Raised by Miscegenation in Portugal (Late Nineteenth to Mid-Twentieth Centuries)”

The History of Anthropology Review (HAR) is happy to announce the recent publication of Patricia Ferraz de Matos‘ article: “Racial and Social Prejudice in the Colonial Empire: Issues Raised by Miscegenation in Portugal (Late Nineteenth to Mid-Twentieth Centuries).”

In this article, Ferraz de Matos examines the issue of miscegenation in Portugal, which is directly associated with the context of its colonial empire, from late nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries. The analysis considers sources from both literary and scientific fields. Topics such as interracial marriage, degeneration and segregation as well as the changes brought about by the end of World War II and the social revolutions of the 1960s are also considered. 

The full-text version of this article can be found here.

Funding Opportunity: 2020-2021 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Native American Scholars Initiative (NASI) Fellowship and Internship at the American Philosophical Society

The American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia invites applications for summer undergraduate internships and predoctoral, postdoctoral, and short-term research fellowships from scholars at all stages of their careers, especially Native American scholars in training, tribal college and university faculty members, and other scholars working closely with Native communities on projects in Native American and Indigenous Studies and related fields and disciplines. These funding opportunities are supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Native American Scholars Initiative (NASI). Fellows will be associated with the APS’s Center for Native American and Indigenous Research (CNAIR), which promotes greater collaboration among scholars, archives, and Indigenous communities. More information about these opportunities can be found below:

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Decolonizing or Recolonizing? The (Mis)Representation of Humanity in Natural History Museums

Every Indigenous Peoples’ Day since 2016, members of the activist group Decolonize This Place have gathered at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City, chanting “rename the day, remove the statue, and respect ancestors.”[1] The AMNH protests have taken place in the context of a growing number of museum controversies throughout Europe and North America. These public confrontations include demands for the repatriation of human remains and artifacts; the rejection of tainted funds; calls to address historical inaccuracies in exhibits; and finally, protests against offensive, stereotypical, or otherwise problematic representations of human subjects.

Of all these conflicts, the misrepresentation of people on display has been the least discussed in the public sphere.[2] Decolonize This Place’s October 2019 protests have received minimal press coverage compared to their more successful actions—for example, calling attention to the Whitney’s acceptance of blood money from donors such as tear-gas magnate Warren Kanders. And yet the ways in which museums organize, categorize, and display the cultures of non-European peoples reflect and reify outdated cultural hierarchies which have their origins in nineteenth-century science. Natural history museum practices today are still guided by some of the key assumptions of anthropology’s founding period, including the belief in a civilizational hierarchy, with Northern European cultures figured as superior to all others; the importance of “salvage” anthropology, in which scientists sought to preserve the remnants of “primitive” cultures supposedly on the verge of extinction; and finally, the naturalization of non-European populations in specialized exhibit spaces—a segregation of the “West from the Rest.” In the words of Museum Studies scholar Ray Silverman, “Ethnography has provided the ‘scientific’ justification for much of the colonial project…. It is a mode of thinking that has proven difficult to shake off and continues to influence how Indigenous peoples are represented in museums and related cultural institutions.”[3]

The persistence of colonial visual culture is especially glaring in natural history museums. As the American political scientist and writer Danielle LaVaque-Manty has pointed out, “There are Indians in the Museum of Natural History. And there aren’t any other kinds of people.”[4] Natural history museums have been among the least responsive to decolonization efforts and, given the naturalizing effects of their ethnographic exhibits, among the most harmful.[5] Such exhibits foster the segregation, exoticization, and “Othering” of non-European cultures. Unwittingly or not, they perpetuate persistent global assumptions of human difference and hierarchy. The prominence of these museums underscores the power of cultural institutions to confront or avoid some of the most pressing issues of our day.

In this essay, I compare the AMNH in New York and the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, which, to varying extents, continue to “display the exotic diversity of pristine civilizations under European domination.”[6] I wish to make clear that there are two paths ahead for museum and public history spaces: one that strives for a collaborative process of decolonization and repair, and another that clings to the status quo, thereby reinforcing colonial categories. I conclude with some thoughts about why these two museums have taken different approaches to decolonial critiques, and also point out ways in which both remain stuck in nineteenth-century frameworks. Finally, I review some of the solutions offered by curators, activists, and scholars, suggesting that this crisis provides opportunities to address urgent issues of representation, memory, and justice.

The American Museum of Natural History: Stuck in the Past

Four types of museums display ethnographic material: “global” art and heritage museums, such as the British Museum or the Metropolitan Museum of Art; anthropology or ethnography museums, such as the Berlin Ethnological Museum; tribal or Native American Museums, like the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, Rhode Island, or the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian (SI/NMAI); and finally, natural history or field museums. Each type of institution faces its own particular challenges. Critics have discussed the need to revise European ethnographic museums, especially in light of very public controversies over provenance and repatriation.[7] Samuel J. Redman, in a recent review of the Hamburg Ethnology Museum, observed that without critical revision, ethnographic museums reveal more about the cultural history of the collectors than the objects of collection.[8] In contrast, many tribal and Native American museums, while not immune from critique and controversy, have prioritized incorporating diverse Indigenous and community narratives.[9]

Of all these types of institutions, natural history museums face unique obstacles to the decolonization process due to the entangled histories of anthropology and natural history. The AMNH was founded in 1869 and remains one of the most prestigious natural history institutions in the United States.[10]  Its history is tied to Franz Boas, who made his mark as one of the most important anti-racist scientists of the twentieth century only later. Boas’s early work at the AMNH, however, included practices that would be condemned as unethical today, including the display of “living Indians” in the Museum, stealing Indigenous peoples’ bones, and authorizing autopsies in secret. He also created the Northwest Coast Hall at the museum, today the target of the bitterest of criticism.[11]

Figure 1: Floor Plan of the American Museum of Natural History, Second Floor. Accessed December 29, 2019.

In October 2016, Decolonize This Place organized a tour and occupation of the AMNH and introduced a set of specific demands, including removal of the Roosevelt statue (which shows Theodore Roosevelt on horseback, trailed by subservient Native American and African figures), as well as an institution-wide review of cultural representations across the museum.[12] On September 25, 2017, likely anticipating the second annual protest, the AMNH announced a multi-year project to “update, restore, and conserve the Northwest Coast Hall.” Decolonize This Place responded in a press release: “While we welcome this long overdue initiative, the false and degrading representations in the rest of the culture halls remain as a present reminder of inaction and colonial violence.”[13] In the wake of the protests, the AMNH also added labels to a diorama deemed inaccurate and offensive. A New York Times article described the exhibit as “filled with historical inaccuracies and clichés of Native representation” and cited the Indigenous consultant hired by the museum, historian Bradley Pecore, who condemned the diorama as replete with harmful stereotypes that “shape the American public’s understanding of Indigenous people.”[14]

Figure 2: The website of the American Museum of Natural History, listing Human Origins and Cultural Halls. Accessed December 29, 2019.

As it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019, the AMNH has not announced an institution-wide review.[15] While it attempts to frame some of the issues it faces—including, this year, a display and website on the Roosevelt statue, featuring the debate around its history and iconography—it should not be forgotten that, in addition to the Northwest Coast Hall, the AMNH has quite a few permanent exhibits of non-European peoples (including Mexican, Plains, and Asian peoples). There is no Hall of Northern European or New England cultures. Taken together, these ethnographic exhibits perpetuate the naturalization of non-European peoples and “freeze” them in time in a way not typically imposed on European ones. The resulting impression on visitors is that only Indigenous and non-Western peoples belong on display with fauna, flora, rocks, and minerals. This outdated “West and the Rest” approach to human cultures—aligning the non-West with the natural, biological, primitive, and pre-civilized—is glaring at the AMNH, as it is in other natural history museums; it reflects a cultural vision from a century ago. The persistence of such representations is remarkable, especially after decades of critical race and postcolonial theory, not to mention the debunking of scientific racism.

The Musée de l’Homme: A Return to Anti-Racist Roots

The Musée de l’Homme, also known as the Trocadéro Museum, was built in 1878. Originally conceived as an exhibition space for the tens of thousands of objects bought or stolen during French scientific expeditions, the museum was strongly influenced by natural history methods of the day, including taxonomy and comparative display.[16] In 1928, French anthropologist Paul Rivet, a correspondent of Boas, took over as director and began to restore and modernize the collections; in 1937 he gave the museum the universalizing name Musée de l’Homme. At this point, it incorporated anthropological objects from the French Natural History Museum (of which, to this day, the Musée de l’Homme remains a branch). Reborn at a time of rising fascism in France and Europe, the Musée de l’Homme under Rivet was known as a node of resistance; some of its personnel ultimately died at the hands of the Nazis. Rivet was adamantly antiracist.[17]

This institutional memory of anti-racism would prove central in the Musée de l’Homme’s renovation seventy years later, which explicitly drew on Rivet’s humanistic approach. Consequentially, shortly before the Musée de l’Homme was renovated in 2009-2015, most of its ethnographic objects were removed and sent to the new ethnographic art museum, the Musée du Quai Branly Jacques Chirac. Opening in 2006, the Musée du Quai Branly’s mission was to provide access to pieces of art and ethnographic objects from “Oceania, Asia, Africa, and the Americas” for both public and research audiences. The loss of their ethnographic items necessitated the Musée de l’Homme’s radical exhibit reorganization.

Figure 3: An exhibit at the Musée de l’Homme that displays European and non-European artifacts side-by-side.

The museum’s curators shaped exhibits in distinct ways explicitly recalling Rivet’s vision. First, they created displays to historicize the museum’s historic relationship with scientific racism, including critiques of French racial science and anthropology’s role in the dehumanization of non-European peoples.[18] Second, in a major innovation, the Musée de l’Homme curators decided to organize exhibits about cultural production not by geography or tribe, but by themes, including music, language, religion, and ornamentation. In these thematic displays, diverse cultures appear side-by-side, with artifacts from Asia, Africa, and America next to European ones. Here, Europeans are a cultural group, on display, like any other. This horizontal representation is reflected on the cover of the museum’s guide as well, underscoring a philosophy of connection between all human cultures, and aiming to “unfreeze” non-European cultures and peoples.

Figure 4: A Musée de l’Homme guide displaying European and non-European artifacts side-by-side.

While the new Musée de l’Homme has received overwhelmingly positive reviews in the press, museum studies scholars have criticized aspects of the renovation. Nathan Schlanger has pointed out that the Musée de l’Homme naturalizes human society itself, filtering it through an evolutionary framework.[19] Anthropologists, as well, might raise objections to the thematic exhibits, which decontextualize the objects, removing their cultural specificity, and risk overstating universal categories. Moreover, while the Musée de l’Homme subverts human classification and advocates for multicultural and relativistic approaches to human diversity, at times, its displays come uncomfortably close to romanticizing globalization. That said, it is noteworthy that the Musée de l’Homme has, since its reopening, attempted to grapple—however imperfectly—with its racist and colonial past, connecting itself to present legacies as well as imagined futures.

Lessons and Next Steps

Why have the two natural history museums discussed here taken such different paths in the face of demands to decolonize? There are three reasons: one accidental and two systemic. A unique circumstance was triggered in the early 2000s with the transfer of ethnographic objects to the Musée du Quai Branly. This decision reduced and limited the Musée de l’Homme’s ethnographic collection and forced a reimagining of the museum as a whole. The two systemic factors have to do with the national, economic, and historical contexts in Europe and in the United States. As state-funded institutions, many European museums are spared some of the pressures of the market and can be more responsive to critical academic voices. In the United States, museums fear public controversy that might threaten dwindling streams of government funding; at the same time, dependence on private funding leaves them beholden to well-heeled donors and their frequently conservative political views.[20]

The second systemic factor relates to legacies of colonialism. While on both sides of the Atlantic, the forces of private property and Eurocentric narratives (themselves often described in neutral, naturalized tones) are powerful, responses to decolonizing critiques play out differently in the two national political cultures. European nations grapple with the tensions of empire, though these are often imagined, however falsely, as existing at a distance from national borders. In the United States, the pressures are arguably more acute. American societies are immersed in the intimate historical legacies of settler colonialism; descendants live together on contested ground. Museums, too, are located on settler colonial lands. To center Indigenous perspectives would require reckoning with Lonetree’s “hard truths.” Decolonization discourse is unsettling.

If creating accurate and inclusive exhibits is a top priority for any museum, what are some steps forward? This essay has described some recent attempts to decolonize natural history museums, both of which have had mixed receptions by public, activist, and scholarly audiences. The two “paths” described here, however, are just first steps and should open up a broader conversation about how we represent humanity in public-facing scientific museums. First, more funding for cultural institutions would help curators enact cutting edge procedures, incorporate critique from scholars, and collaborate with Indigenous people and other community members.[21] As many curators have recognized, consulting with affected communities is crucial.[22] Moreover, Indigenous scholars and elders are not just a source of historic and cultural information, but also offer specific ideas to expand museums’ horizons, including the concepts of respect, reciprocity, and repair.[23] Mutual respect in the Indigenous sense of the word goes beyond ethnicity or nation, and encompasses “social relations of its producers, including source communities and museum staff.”[24] Some institutions have recently embraced these frameworks to rebuild collaborative cultural spaces, including the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Canada Science and Technology Museum—which recently created an exhibit on First Nation astronomy called One Sky, Many Astronomies.[25]

Recognition of the value of collaboration, reciprocity, and Indigenous voice and authority is increasingly common in academic spaces adjacent to Indigenous Studies.[26] Historians of science contextualize human classification practices and remind us of the legacies of colonialism. Historians and anthropologists of settler colonialism in the United States document the “full spectrum” of life, including both survivance and “hard truths” about the past and present. Artists, too, participate in museum decolonization. Since the 1980s, performance pieces have called our attention to the temporally frozen representations of Indigenous people in natural history museums.[27] These works remind us that all people—regardless of identity—have not just a past, but also a present and a future.

After a few decades of critical engagement from activists, curators, scholars, and artists, challenges to Eurocentrism in natural history museums have met with uneven and limited success. This stagnation attests to the unfinished business of reckoning with colonialism and settler violence, including its present legacies. In turn, it reflects our failure, at national and global levels, to reach consensus about how we approach human difference, human classification, and cultural hierarchy. To the extent that museums reflect systemic inequities, misrepresentation will remain a stubborn problem. For now, museum administrators and visitors alike can be alert to normalized colonial tropes, and work towards repair by bringing to the center of exhibitions the perspectives of those who are most harmed by ethnographic displays.


[1]Open Letter on Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” Decolonize This Place Blog, October 10, 2016. Accessed September 30, 2019.

[2] A recent discussion among historians about “the compromised histories of the museum and the epistemologies of public display and national narratives” can be found in “Museums, History, and the Public in a Global Age,” American Historical Review 124, no. 5 (2019) 1631-1672; 1632.

[3] Ray Silverman, “The Legacy of Ethnography,” in Susan Sleeper-Smith, ed., Contesting Knowledge (Lincoln NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2009), 9.

[4] LaVaque-Manty was referring to the Ruthven Museum at the University of Michigan; see “There Are Indians in the Museum of Natural History,” Wicazo Sa Review 15, no. 1 (2000): 71-89.

[5] Yannick Marshall recently pointed out that “colonialism’s violence is the violence of the everyday. Its most deleterious effects are those that are routinized and banal more than those that are spectacular… It is difficult to recognize the violence that has been naturalized.”; see “There is No ‘Relatively Benign’ Version of Settler-Colonialism,” Black Perspectives Blog, October 28, 2019. Accessed November 1, 2019.

[6] Nathan Schlanger, “Back in Business: History and Evolution at the new Musée de l’Homme,” Antiquity 90, no. 352 (2016): 1092.

[7] In November 2018, French President Emanuel Macron announced that 26 objects at the Musée du Quai Branly would be returned to Benin; see Farah Nayeri, “Return of African Artifacts Sets a Tricky Precedent for Europe’s Museums,” New York Times, November 27, 2018. Recently, Germany has been fraught with controversy over the building and reorganization of ethnographic collections in the Humboldt Forum; see Graham Bowley, “A New Museum Opens Old Wounds in Germany,” New York Times, October 14, 2018. See also Philipp Schorch, “Why has the ethnographic museum run out of steam?Blog: How to move on with Humboldt’s Legacy? Rethinking ethnographic collections. Accessed September 18, 2018.

[8] Samuel J. Redman, “Have Anthropology Museums Become History Museums? A visit to the Museum für Völkerkunde in Hamburg, Germany,” History of Anthropology Newsletter 40 (2016).

[9] Amy Lonetree addresses the multiplicity of perspectives in tribal museums, arguing for the inclusion of “hard truths” of settler colonialism such as violence and trauma in addition to stories of survivance in Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native American in National and Tribal Museums (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012).

[10] The four best-known natural history museums in the United States are the AMNH in New York City, the Harvard Museum of Natural History, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Even though I only discuss the AMNH in this essay, all of these institutions have similar approaches to ethnographic exhibits. In October 2018, the Chicago Field Museum announced the first major renovation of the Native North America Hall in sixty years; the press release emphasized Indigenous participation in the project, but did not address the question provoked by LaVaque-Manty’s statement about “Indians in the museum.” See https://www.fieldmuseum.org/about/press/field-museum-renovate-native-north-america-hall-open-2021. Accessed December 23, 2019.

[11] On Boas, see David Hurst Thomas, Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity (New York: Basic Books, 2001); Ned Blackhawk and Isaiah Lorado Wilner, eds., Rediscovering the World of Franz Boas (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018).

[12] In 2019, the AMNH installed a plaque next to the Roosevelt statue on the front steps of the museum. The plaque read: “This statue was unveiled to the public in 1940, as part of a larger New York State memorial to former N.Y. governor and U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. Today, some see the statue as a heroic group; others, as a symbol of racial hierarchy. You can learn more about this statue inside the Museum and at amnh.org/addressing-the-statue.” For an image of the plaque, see Nick Mirzoeff, “How Do We Address a Statue of President Roosevelt That Affirms Racist Hierarchies?” September 24, 2019. Accessed December 29, 2019.

[13]Public Letter on Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” October 4, 2017. Accessed September 30, 2019.

[14] Ana Fota, “What’s Wrong With This Diorama? You Can Read All About It,” New York Times March 2, 2019. “The labels were quietly added in October [2018], after three years of protests…. The museum consulted with outside experts, but not the protest group.” Azi Paybarah, “Museum of Natural History: When an Exhibit Offends,” New York Times March 21, 2019.

[15] For information on the Roosevelt statue at the AMNH see https://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/addressing-the-theodore-roosevelt-statue. Accessed December 23, 2019.

[16] Alice L. Conklin, In the Museum of Man: Race, Anthropology, and Empire in France 1850-1950 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013), 32-34.

[17] Alice L. Conklin, Exposer l’humanité: Race, ethnologie et empire en France (1850-1950) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), chapter 6.

[18] The Musée de l’Homme also curated a special exhibit on racism and racial science called “Us and Them” in 2017-18.

[19] Schlanger, “Back in Business,” 1096. See also Claude Blanckaert (dir.), Le Musée de l’Homme: histoire d’un musée laboratoire (Paris: Muséum national d’histoire naturelle/Éditions Artlys, 2015).

[20] The Whitney-Kander story has received a great deal of press; also, in 2018, the AMNH was forced by public outcry to cancel an event featuring the right-wing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, an open racist who has attacked Indigenous rights. See also Michael Massing, “How the Superrich Captured the Art World,” New York Times, December 15, 2019.

[21] As H. Glenn Penny has pointed out, curators often want to decolonize, but lack funding to complete their vision; see H. Glenn Penny, “Exasperation: An outsider’s take on (some of) the current debates surrounding the Humboldt Forum,” Blog: How to move on with Humboldt’s Legacy? Accessed September 30, 2019.

[22]  They also strive to include the viewpoints of other community members who have a stake in cultural representation, such as museum staff and children/youth visitors. See Schorch, “Why has the ethnographic museum run out of steam”; Ahdaf Soueif, “On Resigning from the British Museum’s Board of Trustees,” LRB blog, July 15, 2019. Accessed September 30, 2019.

[23] Reconciliation—a process currently embraced more in Canada than the United States—rests on the Indigenous concepts of mutual respect (including Indigenous definitions of community and rights) and reciprocity (a shared and equitable process that includes sharing and the principle of “right relations”). See Kim TallBear, “Caretaking Relations, Not American Dreaming,” Kalfou 6, no. 1 (2019).

[24] Jennifer Shannon, “The Construction of Native Voice at the National Museum of the American Indian,” in Sleeper-Smith, ed., Contesting Knowledge, 240. See also Amy Lonetree and Amanda J. Cobb, eds., The National Museum of the American Indian: Critical Conversations (Lincoln NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2008).

[24] Christie Taylor, “Relearning the Star Stores of Indigenous People.” Accessed November 1, 2019.

[25] Public historians have taken the lead in calls to decolonize professional spaces; see, for example, The Inclusive Historian Handbook. Recent historical scholarship includes Susan Sleeper-Smith, et al., eds., Why You Can’t Teach United States History without American Indians (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019). See also “Decolonizing the AHR,” American Historical Review 123, no. 1 (2018): xiv–xvii.

[27] Two well-known examples of critical Indigenous and Latinx performance art in museum spaces include James Luna, The Artifact Piece (1986); and Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Coco Fusco, Year of the White Bear and Two Undiscovered Americans Visit the West (1992).

A Forgotten Archive, or You Have to Be Lucky: The Long-Lost Narratives of the Oneida Ethnological Project

One day in 1997 a department secretary came into my office with a carton filled with five large, old-fashioned ledger boxes and asked me what to do with them. When he told me they contained the correspondence of Haviland Scudder Mekeel, I told him to leave them with me. Mekeel had been a member of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology of the University of Wisconsin (UW) from 1940 until he suddenly died in 1947 and the contents of his office had been left with the department after his death. As I made a preliminary sortie through these letters from 1940-1946, I came across one from Floyd Lounsbury. As I finished it my colleague, Jim Stoltman, an archeologist, walked by my office. “Jim, did you know that Floyd Lounsbury worked on Oneida in Wisconsin?” “No, but there is a carton in the storeroom that has ‘Oneida’ written on it,” he answered. (The department’s archeologists had done an inventory of the contents of the vast basement storeroom not long before.) I thought I would go look for it—and I then forgot about it.

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