(Harvard Univ.)

Skeletons and mummified remains of nearly 30,000 people dwell in the vaults of the Smithsonian Institution. Though their voices have long been silenced, what we say about them speaks volumes. In “Bone Rooms,” biological anthropologist Samuel J. Redman describes the cutting-edge technology brought to bear on these remains and the ethical issues Smithsonian scientists grapple with as they consult some of the descendant communities of the individuals represented in the vaults.

Redman’s primary focus is the years between the Civil War and World War II, a period when anthropologists collected these remains — and thousands of others that lined the shelves in places like Chicago’s Field Museum and Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum — with no regard for ethics. “Bone Rooms” tells the story of “the worst legacies of colonial anthropology in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.” The bodies of women and men who were loved by their families and might have been honored by them in death became mere objects for study. A strong motivating factor for the extensive research Redman undertook to write “Bone Rooms” was this haunting question: “Given the centrality of death and burial in the human experience, how could seemingly sacred principles be violated so directly and systematically?”

The book’s subtitle clues us in to part of the answer: scientific racism. Interest in the “exotic bodies of nonwhite races” drove research for decades. At the Army Medical Museum in the second half of the 19th century, for instance, “the number of American Indian and African American bodies that the museum acquired vastly outpaced the number of European American remains” collected. In the case of Native Americans, skeletons were simply grabbed up from battlefields such as Little Bighorn and, as the American West opened up, from archaeological sites such as the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings in Colorado. And if “indigenous bodies were considered to be commodities,” the same was true of African American bodies, Redman explains.

An effort to classify our species by race lay behind much of the earliest work in U.S. bone rooms. The notion that humans across the globe could be carved up into a discrete number of races — the tripartite scheme of white, black and yellow-brown was popular — was taken for granted. Visitors to large exhibitions, such as San Diego’s “Science of Man” in 1915, were treated to exhibits implying that some nonwhite races still maintained primitive features, and assumptions of white supremacy were veiled thinly, if at all.

In the mid-20th century, questions of human prehistory and evolution slowly began to replace those of racial classification in the museum world. A central figure in this evolving story is Ales Hrdlicka, a Czech-born anthropologist who in 1903 was named the Smithsonian’s first curator of physical anthropology. Hrdlicka’s personality was as acerbic as his ethics were rocky; he essentially encouraged looting of human remains and aligned himself with the eugenics movement.

Redman artfully contrasts Hrdlicka’s research with that of anthropologists Franz Boas, born in Prussia and working at Columbia University, and W. Montague Cobb, an African American scholar and civil rights activist working at Howard University; the force of both eminent men’s work in skeletal and living populations effectively overturned notions of fixed racial typologies.

The thoroughness of Redman’s research (attested to by 60 pages of footnotes) is notable, but so too are problems with the writing’s clarity and organization. Identical or highly similar phrases are repeated within pages of each other; places or concepts are introduced on multiple pages as if for the first time. More than once, I was simply confounded by the text. An example is the claim that at the 1915 San Diego exhibition, the narrative about distinct races in human evolution was “far from explicitly presented,” followed eight pages later by the contrasting statement that “the notion that humanity evolved into distinct races was a recurrent theme throughout the entire exhibit.”

Anthropologists today stand in near-consensus in saying that “race” isn’t an accurate way to understand human variation — indeed, that races are not valid units to begin with. (The American Anthropological Association’s website states that “physical variations in the human species have no meaning except the social ones that humans put on them.”) Redman clearly knows that, and his readers would have been well served with a concluding section laying out the data behind it.

Redman does, however, provide a sobering coda to this story of American museums by explaining laws now on the books to curb unethical practices of bone collecting and to facilitate the return of remains to descendant communities. NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, enacted in 1990, applies to remains of Native Americans, Hawaiians and Alaskans, but only to those from federally recognized tribes. Still lying silent in museums today are remains of people not yet repatriated, of individuals from federally unrecognized tribes and of people who are deemed “culturally unidentifiable.” These remains represent our weighty national legacy of decades of racist science.

Barbara J. King is a biological anthropologist at the College of William and Mary. Her new book on the thoughts, feelings and personalities of the animals we eat will be out in early 2017.

Bone Rooms
From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums

By Samuel J. Redman

Harvard Univ. Press. 408 pp. $29.95