cover image Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums

Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums

Samuel J. Redman. Harvard Univ., $29.95 (390p) ISBN 978-0-674-66041-0

"There is nothing natural about systematically collecting and studying the dead," writes Redman, assistant professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in this remarkable examination of scientific racism, biological anthropology, and the mission of medical museums. Redman opens his account with a startlingly grim piece of history: the cracked and disfigured remains of a Native American man, who was shot twice by militiamen on the Minnesota frontier in 1864, spent over a century in museum "bone rooms" for study before his remains were finally returned to the Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota Nation for reburial. In the U.S. alone, some 500,000 Native American skeletal specimens are housed in such institutions. Scrutinizing these institutional collections exposes a little-examined corner of the history of medicine, as well as the troubling legacy of racial science left by Ale%C5%A1 Hrdli%C4%8Dka, the Czech-born anthropologist whose collection of bones was instrumental in helping to understand human history. "For museums in the United States, even the distant human past represented an opportunity to illuminate the most central of American problems%E2%80%94race," Redman writes. As for the "Dakota man" whose end marked the stark beginning to Redman's meticulous, scholarly history, he teaches another profound lesson: that the study of human prehistory demands both scientific integrity and respect. Illus. (Mar.)