Book Review: Bone Rooms

Redman, Samuel. Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism in Human Prehistory to Museums. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016. Pp. 373. $29.95


Samuel Redman’s new monograph explores an interesting topic: the history and cultural significance of the vast collections of human skeletons that flooded museums and public fairs in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By focusing his text on the careers and motivations of the collectors who stocked these Bone Rooms, Redman argues that this increasingly popular trend of disinterring ancient skeletons for the sake of scientific knowledge and public display defined and perpetuated scientific racism, the practice of using scientific evidence to support racist ideas.

Redman focuses on the period between the Civil War and World War II, a period generally characterized by movement and displacement in American history. As the American West opened and pioneers transformed the land, scientists took advantage of access to new regions and especially to battlegrounds and gravesites, which they eagerly opened. These gravesites yielded ancient skeletons of unfamiliar peoples and cultures that fascinated anthropologists and biologists who were looking for clues about race, biology and prehistoric migration. The bones they uncovered were usually disinterred, removed from their final resting places, and then shipped back to museums to be studied and cataloged. Many were also displayed for the scientific community and for the public. Bone Rooms became very popular and well populated, as many other museums including the Smithsonian, the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia and the Field Museum in Chicago received thousands of skeletons from avid collectors.

Redman captures the exuberance and the excitement that these early scientists felt at their discoveries and notes their complete lack of hesitation or reticence in desecrating gravesites and removing people’s earthly remains. Redman repeatedly asserts that these anthropologists, driven by their disrespect of non-white peoples’ bodies and cultures, institutionalized scientific racism, perpetuated racial divides, and contributed to the development of eugenics, a growing field at the time.

Specifically, Redman follows the careers of a number of men who were at the center of this movement: Aleŝ Hrdliĉka, a Czech-born physical anthropologist at the Smithsonian; Franz Boas, a Prussian cultural anthropologist at Columbia University, Alfred Kreoeber, Boas’ student, and W. Montague Cobb, an American anatomist and physical anthropologist at Howard University. Redman spends a great deal of his book tracing these men’s biographies and careers and describing their contributions to the development of Bone Rooms and scientific racism. Hrdliĉka comes across as a particularly odious person. Appointed to the Smithsonian as the curator of the Bone Rooms in 1903, he aggressively competed with other collectors to amass the largest collection and to ensure that his cataloging and interpretation of skeletal significance dominated the field. Hrdliĉka dedicated his career to trying to uncover the patterns of prehistoric human migration to North America and seems to have truly believed that a biological analysis of the racial identity of the skeletons would reveal those answers. Hrdliĉka’s greatest rival was Fran Boas, who had trained as a physicist, geographer and anthropologist-ho spent his career studying Eskimo-Aleuts and other indigenous peoples across North America. He later became a curator at the American Museum of Natural History. Boas not only collected bones for scientific inquiry, but also sold them to the public. Redman presents both men as obsessive collectors who were so driven by their need to catalog human subjects and type them racially that they never once thought to reflect upon the ethics of their activities.

  1. Montague Cobb, who was hired by Howard University in 1932 and thus belonged to a later generation, did raise ethical questions, though he was also a collector. Cobb collected over 700 skeletons for Howard and also kept the skeletons from the cadavers that he used in the medical classes that he taught. Cobb differed from his predecessors in that he emphasized similarities among races rather than differences. Cobb, who was widely respected and influential, helped initiate a shift in thinking about bones and race and turn the tide against scientific racism. Cobb later became an activist and served as the president of the NAACP from 1976-1982. By using his scientific evidence and expertise, he was able to promote racial equality through his many compelling and authoritative publications.


Bone Rooms contains a vast collection of wonderful photographic reprints that depict both the individuals Redman discusses and the exhibits and the bone rooms themselves.

This book would be well used in classes interested in public history, sociology, anthropology, or racial politics. Although Redman’s topic would spark discussion among popular culture scholars, he does not ask the same kinds of questions that a scholar of pop culture would. Redman, a historian, does look at the displays of bones in museums and at World Fairs, but is much more interested in dissecting the personalities of the great collectors of the age and condemning the field of racial science, which, fortunately, seems to have disappeared from legitimate scientific studies and museum exhibits. In 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act initiated the process of returning many of these bones to their rightful locations. In his epilogue, Redman reflects on mortality and humanity within the context of these cultural and political changes.


Katherine Allocco

Western Connecticut State University


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