HAR News Editor Paul Wolff Mitchell (University of Amsterdam) recently presented a talk for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas entitled “The Politics of Disarticulation: Strategic Depersonalization, the traffic in human remains, and the afterlives of colonial science in museum collections.” The complete talk can now be viewed on YouTube.
Comparative anthropological human remains collections began in the second half of the eighteenth century in northwestern Europe. These collections arose when medical-anatomical expertise met questions about the nature and origins of racial difference posed by Europeans in colonial encounters. In this presentation, Mitchell focuses on how practices and presumptions filling dissection halls with the bodies of socially marginalized people in Europe, and later North America, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were extended into expanding colonial-imperial networks to amass the bones of racialized others for collection and study. Through attention to cases entangled in anthropology’s disciplinary formation, centered in present-day Germany, Indonesia, South Africa, Scotland, Australia, Liberia, and the United States, he will trace a “politics of disarticulation” – acts of strategic concealment and depersonalization by which anatomists intentionally detached identities and histories from human remains to enable collection of these remains in the face of resistance from the deceased’s kin and community. These cases suggest that much of what is unknown about the history of the bodies in historical anthropological human remains collections may be by design. Moreover, they show how colonial power relations structure what information anatomists recorded and published about the human remains they collected. Mitchell concludes with reflections on how the emergence and persistence of anthropological human remains collections has always crucially hinged on acts of strategic concealment and depersonalization, and how these histories complicate present ethical considerations concerning repatriation and the embodied afterlives of racial science.