Anatomy and the Construction of Identity

AHA Session 218
History of Science Society 3
Saturday, January 6, 2018: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Roosevelt Room 1 (Marriott Wardman Park, Exhibition Level)
Karen A. Rader, Virginia Commonwealth University
Joseph Banks and the Skull Trade
Anita Guerrini, Oregon State University
American Fossils: Exhibiting Nature and Nation in New York’s Great Dinosaur Hall
Alison Laurence, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Karen A. Rader, Virginia Commonwealth University

Session Abstract

This session looks at human and animal anatomy and the display of human and animal specimens as sites of debates about human identity between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. It offers three new and distinct narratives that complement and complicate the existing historiography of the anatomical construction of race in the nineteenth century. Rather than focusing on exclusively on race, these papers look at questions of identity: ethnic, national, and gender. Anita Guerrini, a historian of science and medicine, looks in her paper at the last third of the eighteenth century, when the English naturalist Joseph Banks was at the center of a global network of exchange of human skulls. Focusing on the anatomical collections of London surgeon John Hunter, Guerrini examines a shift in collecting practices from medicine to anthropology signaled by an increased emphasis on skulls over other body parts. Skulls uniquely defined humanity and its national and ethnic diversity.

The dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History have famously been examined by Donna Haraway as an example of “Teddy Bear Patriarchy.” Less attention has been paid to Dinosaur Hall, which opened in 1927. Science Studies scholar Alison Laurence shows in her paper that extinct animals could convey concepts of gender, ethnicity and race no less than could dioramas of contemporary animals, particularly because the same people often worked on both kinds of displays.

Natalia Aleksiun, a historian of Judaism, investigates the same period as Laurence in very different places and circumstances. In East Central Europe between the wars, questions of race, ethnicity, and religion emerged in a bitter struggle within medical faculties over the use of Jewish and Gentile cadavers in anatomical training. Historian of science Karen Rader will offer commentary. Rader has written on animal use in science and most recently on natural history museums.

The audience for this session should cut across diverse subfields, from the history of science and medicine to histories of race, gender, and religion. The presenters represent career stages from graduate student to mid-career to senior scholars, and four different parts of the US.

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