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.