Virtual Issues

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: “It is the essential function of the museum as a scientific institution to preserve for all future time, in the best possible way, the valuable material that has been collected.”[iii] These, then, were the proper pursuits of the museum: collection and preservation, finding and keeping.

In a special issue of Curator: The Museum Journal, guest editors Ann M. Kakaliouris and Joanna Radin have sought to explain the devices and desires of anthropological collectors, especially those who hunted for human biological specimens and samples.[iv] How did their practices of collecting—mostly from colonized or otherwise subjugated peoples—shape their claims on what it means to be human? What values and sensibilities are embedded in these acquisitions? What are the ethics of finding, taking, and keeping? In assembling the special issue, Kakaliouris and Radin expressed their hope for a “more honest recognition of the complex social relationships and continually emerging politics of exchange that have always been a part of science.”[v] This virtual issue of Curator serves as a supplement to their ambitious program. I have selected some pertinent articles from the journal’s archive to illustrate a shift during the past fifty years in curatorial sensitivity and style: from preoccupation with the objectification and stabilization of collectibles toward a tendency to subjectify such things, to emphasize provenance and community ties. Or to put it bluntly, the modality of articles in Curator changed around 1990, from the complacency of objects found and preserved to the discord of objects “lost” to peoples, with the collection’s subjectivity regained. Objects are found, subjects lost; then subjects are found, objects lost. It is intriguing that this should have happened at the end of the Cold War, though surely amplification of decolonization movements, the rise of Indigenous activism, the dispersion of human rights discourse, and feminist critiques of sovereignty were more compelling causes for recent re-evaluations of the collection.

In any case, I have divided the articles into two groups. The first group—objects found, subjects lost—is a compilation of studies of how things in collections, most of them biological, might be ordered and preserved for purposes of display and research. We begin with, appropriately, Shapiro distinguishing anthropological collections from exhibitions of primitive art, a separation that reversed the advice Boas had given some fifty years earlier.[vi] Interestingly, Shapiro by 1958 was warning against the easy “abstracting” of objects from their cultural setting, the ready alienation of specimens from their source—the activity on which his career had been based. A few years later, William W. Fenton observed the dependence of physical anthropologists—perhaps even then an old-fashioned term—on museum collections of human biological material, which he argued should be treated as objects of natural history, not like ”ethnological Chippendale.”[vii] Hugo G. Rodeck wondered how the museum’s collection of “tangible things” would adapt as modern biological research changed from older obsessions with taxonomy and systematics to functional and ecological approaches: how might these objects be mobilized in the new regime, how would they survive in the new niche?[viii] At the end of the 1960s, Richard Ruppel continued to worry about the disjunction of what he called, following Sherwood Washburn, the new physical anthropology (or biological anthropology or human biology) with the sadly dated and static taxonomic orientation of most museum collections. Ruppel suggested a “conjunctive” style, opening “the closet of bones and charts” to the lively world of human evolution, archeology, and ethnology.[ix] The deathliness of most natural history collections also concerned Dean Amadon, who wanted to animate these lifeless materials and make them uncannily relevant to contemporary problems—to defrost, in effect, the arrays of freeze-dried objects.[x] In 1983, when James M. Bryant reflected on the future of biological collections, he saw their value chiefly in providing “a camera obscura view of the living world as a whole that would otherwise be impossible.”[xi] Even so, he limited museum agency to administrators, scientists, students, and museum visitors—the people from whom these objects came were still nowhere to be seen. Briskly identifying the “value” of natural history collections in 1994, Warren D. Allmon also remained blithely indifferent to those other claims of value asserted ever more loudly beyond the museums.[xii]

To illustrate this objectifying thought style or mind set—the conventional curatorial imagination—I include a few technical articles on specimen preservation, a genre common in earlier issues of Curator. Such articles might now appear quaint and hermetic. Their style is hard to fix, wavering between the cookbook recipe and ethnographic descriptions of sorcery. Thus Bernard Sills and Seymour Couzyn in 1958 guided us through the mechanism of plastic infiltration of biologic specimens.[xiii] In 1970, R.O. Hower enthusiastically recounted advances in freeze-dry preservation of life forms, hoping to standardize this procedure for making biological objects.[xiv] Richard G. van Gelder expatiated on his philosophy for the preservation and handling of mammalian specimens and samples, showing us a world populated by fixed biological things, displaced and suspended in evolutionary time.[xv] Thus we have come to see the museum as a miraculous instrument of scalar manipulation.

The second set of articles—subjects found, objects lost—traces the fall of the Edenic collection, the loss of “innocent” objectivity. While many contributors to Curator have dated disillusionment with the supposedly autonomous object to the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act 1990 (NAGPRA), in other jurisdictions such discontent and anxiety had long been evident. According to Christopher Anderson, Australian museums had been dealing decades earlier with the personification of human remains and demands for their de-accessioning and restitution. He worried, however, that repatriation might still be predicated on the transmission of objects, a lingering materiality, rather than the building of relationships. He urged denial of what he called the basis of museology: “the primacy of the object.”[xvi] Similarly, drawing on Aotearoa New Zealand experience, Marjorie L. Harth suggested that curators should de-fetishize their objects and develop intimate connections with source communities.[xvii] In their study of the effects of NAGPRA, T.J. Sullivan, M. Abraham, and D.J.G. Griffin found North American museums consulting and engaging with Indigenous people in managing their collections of Indigenous cultural heritage, including human remains. If nothing else, NAGPRA was opening up conversations with Indigenous communities, causing institutions to re-evaluate their “objects.”[xviii] Finally, Christina Kreps attempts to dissolve the dichotomy of object and subject, arguing hopefully that curatorial work is forging relationships among objects, peoples, and societies. Objects, she claims, have lost their centrality. Curating a collection now is a “form of social practice linked to specific kinds of relationships between people and objects as well as wider social structures and contexts.”[xix] What, one asks, would Sullivan, Hrdlicka, and Shapiro have said to that?

[i] Sullivan to F.A. Lucas, 8 July 1922, folder July-December 1922, box 11, Central Archives, American Museum of Natural History, New York. Quoted in Warwick Anderson, “Racial hybridity, physical anthropology, and human biology in the colonial laboratories of the United States,” Current Anthropology 53 (2012): S95-S107, p. S99.

[ii] Shapiro to Clark Wissler, 17 October 1929, Harry L. Shapiro collection, MSS S537, Archives and Special Collections, American Museum of Natural History. Quoted in Warwick Anderson, “Hybridity, race, and science: the voyage of the Zaca, 1934-35,” Isis 103 (2012): 229-53, p. 239.

[iii] Franz Boas, “Principles of museum administration,” Science 25ns (1907): 921-33, p. 930.

[iv] Ann M. Kakliouras and Joanna Radin, “Archiving Anthropos: tracking the ethics of collections across history and anthropology,” Curator: The Museum Journal 57 (2014): 147-51. (

[v] Kakliouras and Radin, “Archiving Anthropos,” p. 150. (

[vi] Harry L. Shapiro, “Primitive art and anthropology,” Curator: The Museum Journal 1 (1958): 46-51; Boas, “Principles of museum administration.” (

[vii] William N. Fenton, “The museum and anthropological research,” Curator: The Museum Journal 3 (1960): 327-55, p. 341. (

[viii] Hugo G. Rodeck, “The university museum and biological research,” Curator: The Museum Journal 3 (1960): 313-17. (

[ix] Richard Ruppel, “A museum of physical anthropology,” Curator: The Museum Journal 12 (1969): 139-146, p. 143. (

[x] Dean Amadon, “Natural history museums—some trends,” Curator: The Museum Journal 14 (1971): 42-49. (

[xi] James M. Bryant, “Biological collections: legacy or liability?” Curator: The Museum Journal 26 (1983): 203-18, p. 216. (

[xii] Warren D. Allmon, “The value of natural history collections,” Curator: The Museum Journal 37 (1994): 83-89. (

[xiii] Bernard Sills and Seymour Couzyn, “Dry preservation of biologic specimens by plastic infiltration,” Curator: The Museum Journal 1 (1958): 72-75. (

[xiv] R.O. Hower, “Advances in freeze-dry preservation of biological specimens,” Curator: The Museum Journal 13 (1970): 135-52. (

[xv] Richard G. van Gelder, “’Another man’s poison,’” Curator: The Museum Journal 7 (1964): 55-71. (

[xvi] Christopher Anderson, “Australian Aborigines and museums—a new relationship,” Curator: The Museum Journal 33 (1990): 165-79, p. 170. (

[xvii] Marjorie L. Harth, “Learning from museums with Indigenous collections: beyond repatriation,” Curator: The Museum Journal 42 (1999): 274-84. (

[xviii] T.J. Sullivan, M. Abraham, and D.J.G. Griffin, “NAGPRA: effective repatriation programs and cultural change in museums,” Curator: The Museum Journal 43 (2000): 231-60. (

[xix] Christina Kreps, “Curatorship as social practice,” Curator: The Museum Journal 46 (2003): 311-23, p. 320. (