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Collecting Humanity: How Human Remains Are Made into Museum Objects

Applicant Sommer Marianne
Number 137690
Funding scheme Project funding (Div. I-III)
Research institution Kultur- und Sozialwissenschaftliche Fakultät Zentrum fur Religion, Wirtschaft und Politik Universität Luzern
Institution of higher education University of Lucerne - LU
Main discipline General history (without pre-and early history)
Start/End 01.11.2011 - 28.02.2015
Approved amount 178'637.00
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All Disciplines (2)

Discipline
General history (without pre-and early history)
Anthropology, Primatology

Keywords (7)

biological anthropology; anthropology; colonialism; history of science; collecting; heritage; repatriation

Lay Summary (English)

Lead
Lay summary

In the nineteenth century, anthropologists studied the many aspects of human diversity. While cultural anthropologists amassed huge collections of artefacts from various peoples to study cultural diversity, biological anthropologists investigated biological diversity mainly by measuring and studying collections of human bodily remains. To this purpose, human bodies, skulls, and bones were shipped from all over the world to scientific institutions in Europe. In the process of reshaping national and local identities, (groups in) former colonies have demanded that human remains from such collections be returned to their place of origin, an iconic case being South Africa’s demand to repatriate Sarah Baartman’s remains from France. Such claims have raised many questions for curators, for example how their duty to conserve artefacts and to preserve collections can be balanced against the claimants’ demands.

Knowledge about the history of collecting in biological anthropology – understanding which specimens were collected where, by whom, how, and for what purpose – may prove crucial for such debates. This project aims to unveil these collecting practices and their contexts by examining two exemplary collections from the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, France, and the Natural History Museum in Basle, Switzerland, reconstructing the history of the human remains from their arrival in Europe to their origins in the field: Which were the key events in the ‘lives’ of the human bones? Under which circumstances were the human remains collected and through what kinds of human and institutional networks were they brought to scientific organizations in Europe? How did anthropological collecting influence science and for what purposes were the remains collected? What were the selection criteria?

By analysing collections from two countries with very different colonial histories, we will be able to examine the impact these differences had on the collecting possibilities and practices. Furthermore, by approaching the problem of colonial anthropological collecting and its present legacy through a focus on the scientific objects rather than through national and institutional histories, we hope to arrive at a more inclusive picture of how human remains were made to travel within more or less global networks.

Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 21.02.2013

Responsible applicant and co-applicants

Employees

Scientific events

Active participation

Title Type of contribution Title of article or contribution Date Place Persons involved
Forschungskolloquium des Lehrstuhls Prof. Dr. Marianne Sommer Individual talk Mit Menschenknochen im Gepäck 11.04.2017 Universtität Luzern, Switzerland Blanchard Pierre-Louis;
Forschungskolloquium des Lehrstuhls Prof. Dr. Marianne Sommer Individual talk Das Ende ‚sensibler Sammlungen‘? Treuhänderisches Sammeln menschlicher Überreste 28.04.2015 Universität Luzern, Switzerland Blanchard Pierre-Louis;
Spécimens de collection: Collecter et collectionner par-delà nature et culture (de la fin du 18ème siècle à nos jours) Talk given at a conference Expéditions privées, collections d’État : Comparaison entre les pratiques de collection en anthropologie du Muséum national d’histoire naturelle de Paris et du Musée d’ethnographie de Bâle 03.11.2014 Paris, France Blanchard Pierre-Louis;
Methodisches Seminar (Leitung: Prof. Dr. Marianne Sommer) Talk given at a conference Collecting Humanity: How Human Remains Are Made into Museum Objects 09.05.2014 Luzern, Switzerland Blanchard Pierre-Louis;
Forschungskolloquium des Lehrstuhls Prof. Dr. Marianne Sommer Talk given at a conference Körper des Feindes, Trophäen des Krieges 06.05.2014 Luzern, Switzerland Blanchard Pierre-Louis;
24th International Congress of History of Science, Technology and Medicine (in der von Prof. Dr. Marianne Sommer geleiteten Session 'Fossil work ...') Talk given at a conference How ‘primitive peoples’ were made into ‘living fossils’ in the collecting practices of the Natural History Museum in Basel, 1905-1918 21.07.2013 Manchester, Great Britain and Northern Ireland Blanchard Pierre-Louis;
Visibility Matters: Rendering Human Origins and Diversity in Space and Time (Mitorganisiert von Prof. Dr. Marianne Sommer) Talk given at a conference Putting Skulls on Paper: The Cranial Curves of Fritz and Paul Sarasin 25.04.2013 Luzern, Switzerland Blanchard Pierre-Louis;
Forschungskolloquium des Lehrstuhls Prof. Dr. Marianne Sommer Talk given at a conference Collecting Humanity: How Human Remains Are Made into Museum Objects 08.04.2013 Luzern, Switzerland Blanchard Pierre-Louis;
Methodisches Seminar (Leitung: Prof. Dr. Marianne Sommer) Talk given at a conference Collecting Humanity: How Human Remains Are Made into Museum Objects 23.05.2012 Luzern, Switzerland Blanchard Pierre-Louis;
Wissenschaftsrunde des Naturhistorischen Museums Basel Talk given at a conference Der Mensch als wissenschaftliches Objekt. Sammelpraktiken in der biologischen Anthropologie. 17.04.2012 Basel, Switzerland Blanchard Pierre-Louis;
Vorbereitendes Workshop: Visibility Matters Talk given at a conference Visualisations of Human Origins and Diversity in Museums. 16.12.2011 Berlin, Germany Blanchard Pierre-Louis;


Communication with the public

Communication Title Media Place Year
Media relations: print media, online media Les musées, dernières demeures La Liberté Western Switzerland 2019
Talks/events/exhibitions Menschliche Überreste als Sammelobjekte: An der Grenze zwischen Objekt und Subjekt. International Western Switzerland German-speaking Switzerland 2019
Media relations: print media, online media Gesammelte Gebeine horizonte Western Switzerland Italian-speaking Switzerland German-speaking Switzerland International 2017

Associated projects

Number Title Start Funding scheme
123220 Geschichte im Körper: Das Phylogenetische Gedächtnis der Knochen, Organismen und Moleküle 01.02.2010 SNSF Professorships

Abstract

In the nineteenth century, anthropologists decided to study the many aspects of human diversity. While ethnologists amassed huge collections of ethnographica, biological anthropologists investigated biological diversity mainly by studying and measuring collections of human remains (such as bones). To this purpose, human remains were shipped from all over the world to scientific institutions in Europe. In the wake of the reshaping of identities in post-colonial states, former colonies have reclaimed human remains from such collections, an iconic case being South Africa’s demand to repatriate Sarah Baartman’s remains from France. Such claims have raised many questions for curators, such as how their duty to conserving artefacts and preserving collections can be balanced against the claimants’ demands.The history of biological anthropology collecting plays an important role in this debate. To understand which specimens were collected where, by whom, how, and for what purpose is crucial knowledge for grounding the debate. This project aims to unveil these collecting practices and their background by examining two exemplary collections - from the Musée de l’Homme in Paris and the Natural History Museum in Basel - and tracing the history of the pieces in the collections from their arrival back to their origins in the field: What are the key events in the ‘lives’ of the human bones? What acquisition networks carried them to scientific institutions in Europe? How did anthropological collecting influence science and for what exact purpose were the remains collected? What were the collecting criteria?By analysing collections from two countries with very different colonial histories, we will be able to examine the concordances and discrepancies in how they acquired the bones to fill their museums. Furthermore, by orienting our project to the study of scientific objects instead of to national and institutional histories, we will be able to tell a more global history of anthropological collecting practices.
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