Collecting Humanity

Prehistory, Race and Instructions for "Scientific" Travel, 1750-1850

Project Description

This project will seek to explain why and how the amorphous Enlightenment concept of race hardened into categories of racial hierarchy at the same time as the notion of prehistory also began to take hold in European scientific thought. The significance of the project consists in the historical investigation of how natural historians linked race with pre-history as the predominant conceptual means to imagine other peoples as static subjects, trapped in the past. Working together with Bruce Buchan at Griffith University, I will uncover this history by untangling two intimately connected practices integral to the development of modern science and anthropology: the sending out of ‘scientific’ instructions for travelling natural historians, and the collecting of anthropological artefacts and human remains for teaching and display in European museums.

We will excavate a longer tradition of instruction from those of Linnaeus, to the epochal British voyages of Pacific exploration in the late eighteenth century, to the influential work in the first of half of the nineteenth-century of the naturalist and zoologist Sven Nilsson at Lund University, and the Professor of Natural History at the University of Edinburgh, Robert Jameson. The importance of this neglected tradition resides precisely in how it shaped the museum curation of human races deemed to be "prehistoric". Museums were sites of research, teaching and public engagement and were at the forefront of creating and disseminating colonial narratives about racial differences. By focussing on a Swedish-British tradition of instruction, we will show how professors, amateur scientists, creator communities of Indigenous or enslaved people, and museum staff were linked in networks of competing interests that shaped the vivid reimaginings of prehistory and racial difference in museums.

Chartran, Theobald, "Le baron Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) reunit les documents pour son ouvrage sur les ossements fossiles" © 2020. Photo Josse/Scala, Florence

About the Project

Project Duration



The Swedish Research Council