Paul Turnbull. Science, Museums and Collecting the Indigenous Dead in Colonial Australia. Palgrave Studies in Pacific History. 428 pp., 6 b/w illus., bibl., index. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

Indigenous bodies have long been a source of historical interest. Over the past decade many scholars have discussed how indigenous bodies and body parts have functioned as sites of persistent fascination, colonial oppression, and Indigenous agency. One persistent theme in this historiography is how the collection and use of Indigenous biospecimens came to be prospected and profited upon. Warwick Anderson’s The Collectors of Lost Souls showed us how Fore brain samples served as a valuable biomedical commodity. Kim TallBear and Jenny Reardon illustrated the role of “Indigenous DNA” in generating scientific knowledge, accruing capital, and attaining professional prestige. Emma Kowal similarly drew our attention to the “ethical biovalue” afforded to Indigenous specimens through discussing how many drug targets and diagnostic tools have emerged out of the collection and use of Indigenous blood, saliva, surgically-removed diseased tissues, and urine.[1] Paul Turnbull’s Science, Museums and Collecting the Indigenous Dead in Colonial Australia follows in the footsteps of this well-known body of work. However, rather than focusing his attention on brains, blood, or bodily tissues, Turnbull is more interested in Indigenous skeletal remains and the ways that they have functioned as sites of scientific curiosity from the 1700s to the turn of the twentieth century.

Much like Anderson, TallBear, Reardon, and Kowal before him, Turnbull demonstrates how Indigenous body parts have functioned as reservoirs for research and were often viewed as rare, important, and diminishing sources of new scientific insights and biomedical knowledge. By tracing how Indigenous skulls traveled from the Australian frontier to continental anatomical collections, Turnbull shows us how the collection, analysis, and display of these biospecimens was deeply intertwined with contemporary debates over the nature and origins of human diversity, technological changes in transportation and preservation, and modes of colonial oppression and frontier violence. He also shows us how the scientific uses and, indeed, abuses, of Indigenous Australian skeletal remains are not just located in the past but continue to permeate scientific and museology practices in the present. Through locating the physical whereabouts of these remains in natural history museums found throughout the world and discussing how Indigenous skulls continue to operate as scientific objects and educational tools, Turnbull draws attention to the ethics of anatomopathological collections. He also grapples with what it means to put human remains on display—especially when these remains were obtained under exploitative conditions, invoked to entrench prejudice and colonial subjugation, and used in direct contravention of Indigenous Australian cosmology and burial practices.

In order to trace this complex history of science, museology, and Indigenous ancestral remains, Turnbull divides his work into twelve chapters. The first six chapters focus on the history of skeletal collecting in colonial Australia, looking particularly at the meanings and values that Indigenous Australian skulls took on in the hands of leading European naturalists, comparative anatomists, surgeons, and phrenologists throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In his discussion, Turnbull skillfully shows how Indigenous Australian skulls were mobilized to strengthen contemporary ideas about human variation. For instance, during this period Australian skulls were used to reinforce monogenetic theories of human origins, strengthen ideas about racial determinism, and challenge early Darwinian attempts to reconstruct humankind’s evolutionary genealogy. Here, Turnbull convincingly lays out his argument that Indigenous skulls were seen by continental researchers as valuable “raw materials”—materials that not only seemed to shed light on where humankind came from, and why observable differences between people existed, but that could also be leveraged for intellectual authority, increased professional prestige, and economic gain (76). After laying out how and why Australian skulls became the subject of scientific interest, Turnbull turns his attention to how these specimens were actually obtained. In particular, chapters 7-9 show the role that Australian scientists, government agents, and other colonial-based contacts played in securing remains and examine how these artifacts made their way into metropolitan institutions such as private natural history collections, universities, and museums.

Chapters 10-12 of Science, Museums and Collecting the Indigenous Dead in Colonial Australia grapples with the ethics of collecting skeletal remains. In particular, he places the procurement and preservation of Indigenous skulls within a larger geography of national chauvinism, increasingly racialized perceptions of peoples, frontier violence and grave desecration. He also shows how the importance of these materials extend far beyond the realm of science and have important social and symbolic connections to the communities from which they were taken. These last three chapters are where Turnbull’s work really shines, as he draws upon his experiences as both a scholar and activist. Turnbull has worked with many Australian Indigenous communities to establish the provenance of remains held in British and continental collections and facilitate their safe return. Alongside his historical work, this background enables him to contextualize the Australian repatriation movement and show what is at stake for museums and other research institutions in maintaining these kinds of collections.

Despite the fact that Science, Museums and Collecting the Indigenous Dead fits nicely into the pre-existing body of literature that has investigated the relationship between biospecimens, indigeneity, and colonial science, Turnbull largely refrains from drawing upon these works in his analysis. Although he does mention in his introduction that he relied heavily on works by Anne Fabien and Michael Sappol for their methodological insights on anatomy, racial science, and skull collecting in nineteenth century North America,[2] ties to Anderson, TallBear, Reardon, and Kowal’s work on the collection of Indigenous body parts are either weak or non-existent. So too are linkages to many recent works that have focused on the relationship between science and Indigenous data—such as Rebecca Lemov’s work on the role that Indigenous data played in the construction of Bert Kaplan’s “database of dreams,” or Joanna Radin’s  study of the Pima Indian Diabetes Dataset and how Indigenous data came to be produced and mobilized in contexts far beyond the reservations where the data was initially collected.[3] That said, just because Turnbull doesn’t really engage with this body of work doesn’t mean that his research doesn’t contribute to it. In addition to providing yet another example of how Indigenous peoples’ biological resources have been exploited for scientific knowledge production and material gain, Science, Museums and Collecting the Indigenous Dead reveals the inner workings of Australian and European museological practice in both the past and present. It also offers new insight into the historicity of current debates over the origins, ownership, and reuse of Indigenous skeletal remains, and serves as a useful model for how activism and history can come together in a meaningful way to effect change.  For these reasons Turnbull’s work will certainly appeal to all those with an interest in the history of medicine, anthropology, museum studies, and bioethics.

[1] For more, see: Warwick Anderson, The Collectors of Lost Souls (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015); Jenny Reardon and Kim TallBear. “‘Your DNA is Our History’: Genomics, Anthropology and the Construction of Whiteness as Property,” Current Anthropology 53, no. S5 (2012): S233-45; TallBear, Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013); Emma Kowal, “Orphan DNA: Indigenous samples, ethical biovalue and postcolonial science,” Social Studies of Science 43, no. 4 (2013): 577-97.

[2] Anne Fabian, The Skull Collectors: Race, Science and America’s Unburied Dead (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010); Michael Sappol, A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).

[3] Rebecca Lemov, Database of Dreams: The Lost Quest to Catalog Humanity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015); Joanna Radin, “‘Digital Natives’: How Medical and Indigenous Histories Matter for Big Data,” OSIRIS 32 (2017): 43-64.