The Exhibitionary Complex of Physical Anthropology: The Museum of Man in Prague and the Smithsonian and its Sensitive Collections

The authors’ interest to revising the role of Museums of Mankind or Man disseminated around the world between the 1920s and 1980s aligns with current attempts to redefine various implications of physical anthropology as embedded into global history of race science. Ann Fabian (2010)1, Britta Lange (2011)2, Alice L. Conklin (2013)3, Samuel Redman (2016)4, Tony Bennett et all (2017)5 brought into analytical and critical lenses the legacy of anthropological collections in Vienna, Paris and Washington in order to emphasize the mission of the museums as signifiers of racism aimed at practicing the power of ‘whiteness’ as hierarchy through materially representing otherness and bringing about colonial reductionism.6 We explore critical historical reflection of anthropological collections in terms of Bhaskarian critical negation or non-identity, intention to emancipate from the views and practices stemmed from physical anthropology. We map the critical narratives concerning physical anthropology as pending between transformative negation targeted at emancipating prominent achievements of anthropology from its false ideologies, and radical negation aimed at deconstructing European identity seen as a universal, multifaceted platform for physical anthropology.

The development of physical anthropology in Eastern Europe including the culture of museums should be seen as a part of adapting the main Western pathways for translating ‘whiteness’ and the hierarchy which supports ‘whiteness.’ Established in the early 1920s in Prague, the Museum of Man is one of the most consistent examples of such adaptation until nowadays. Aleš Hrdlička, a famous American physical anthropologists of Czech origin, directly supervised the development of Czech physical anthropology and provided solid material support for elaborating the Museum’s collections. We reconstruct history of the Museum as an adaptation of Western, primarily, American and German models of anthropological museum or “repetition without replication”7 and shed light on the role of the Museum in legitimizing physical anthropology during different periods of Czech history.

1 Ann Fabian The Skull Collectors: Race, Science, and America's Unburied Dead left off (Chicago, 2010).
2 Brita Lange Sensible Sammlungen in Margit Berner, Annette Hoffmann, Britta Lange (eds.) Sensible Sammlungen Aus dem anthropologischen Depot (Hamburg Philo Fine Arts: 2010): pp.15-40.
3 Alice Conklin In the Museum of Man - Race, Anthropology, and Empire in France, 1850–1950 (Cornell: Cornell University Press, 2013).
4 Samuel Redman Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums (Harvard University Press 2016).
Tony Bennett, Fiona Cameron, Nélia Dias, Ben Dibly, Rodney Harrison, Ira Jacknis, and Conal McCarthy Collecting, Ordering, Governing: Anthropology, Museums, and Liberal Government (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017).
6 Tony Bennett "The exhibitionary complex" New formation 1988, 4 pp. 73-102: p. 80.
7 Linda Hutcheon A Theory of Adaptation (London New York Routledge: 2006): p. 7.

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