Virtual Issues are a deep dive into the Curator archives about a single theme, synthesizing articles from the past for today’s urgent museum topics. Every article referenced by the Virtual Issues will be open access for all readers for a limited time.

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Found & Lost: The Biography of the Bio-Collection

Warwick Anderson In the early 1920s, young Louis Sullivan, collecting Polynesian skulls for the Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Honolulu, and the American Museum of Natural History, faced stiff competition for the valuable items from Ales Hrdlicka, a rival physical anthropologist at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. “Hrdlicka gets everything that isn’t nailed down,” Sullivan lamented. “He surely is a hog of collectors.”[i] Collecting was what museum men did, often voraciously. Acquiring some more Polynesian skulls a few years later in the South Seas, Harry L. Shapiro, also from the American Museum of Natural History, referred ambivalently to his “collector’s cupidity.” In the Tuamotus, when he heard of a skull recently reburied in a cemetery, the physical anthropologist “reacted to that as simply and decisively as the hind leg of a frog to an electric spark.” Somewhat regretfully, he “abstracted” the skull at night and hid it in his laundry till he could get it to New York.[ii] As a career museum man, Shapiro had taken to heart the precept of his mentor, Franz Boas: …

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