Alice B. Kehoe

Professor of Anthropology, Emeritus, Marquette University

Arsenic and Old Pelts: Deadly Pesticides in Museum Collections

All museums use pesticides and preservatives, though their health impacts are not always known; ethnographic collections can thus pose a health risk. Here we  open one cold case file, in which we believe a prominent American anthropologist may have directly suffered from such effects. Our own experience and inquiries confirm this hunch.

Clark Wissler fell ill in 1905, soon after he began working in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. At some point during the period of Wissler’s illness, Museum Director Henry Fairfield Osborn recommended that his own physician examine Wissler. But despite this additional medical consultation, the illness persisted and was never successfully diagnosed—making him appear frail until 1928 when it mysteriously cleared up. The symptoms were severe enough to cause Wissler to give up his fieldwork on the Blackfeet Reservation. Continue reading

‘Shamanism, Discourse, Modernity’ by Thomas Karl Alberts

Thomas Karl Alberts. Shamanism, Discourse, Modernity. 286 pp., refs., index. New York: Routledge, 2016. $122 (hardback), $54.95 (e-book). First published 2015 by Ashgate.

Alberts, of Cape Town, South Africa, chooses “shamanism” to be the linchpin of a detailed history of an anthropological trope increasingly popular and politically engaged. Because “shamanism” is universalized as a component of “the primitive,” its usage closely followed the development of anthropology within imperial regimes, and its current proliferation ties in with indigenous rights and environmental projects. Alberts goes farther, citing Foucault at numerous points about modernity’s universalizing epistemologies versus its acknowledgements of contingencies. The term “modernity” seems to refer to an Enlightenment search for new knowledge as the means of establishing universal types and laws, forever pushed on by contingent particulars brought up to critique these projections (14-15). The strength and value of this book is in its critiques, packed with historic and contemporary detail.

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