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Bone Rooms

Bone Rooms

From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums

Samuel J. Redman

ISBN 9780674278677

Publication date: 12/13/2022

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A Smithsonian Book of the Year
A Nature Book of the Year

“Provides much-needed foundation of the relationship between museums and Native Americans.”

In 1864 a US Army doctor dug up the remains of a Dakota man who had been killed in Minnesota and sent the skeleton to a museum in Washington that was collecting human remains for research. In the “bone rooms” of the Smithsonian, a scientific revolution was unfolding that would change our understanding of the human body, race, and prehistory.

Seeking evidence to support new theories of racial classification, collectors embarked on a global competition to recover the best specimens of skeletons, mummies, and fossils. As the study of these discoveries discredited racial theory, new ideas emerging in the budding field of anthropology displaced race as the main motive for building bone rooms. Today, as a new generation seeks to learn about the indigenous past, momentum is building to return objects of spiritual significance to native peoples.

“A beautifully written, meticulously documented analysis of [this] little-known history.”
—Brian Fagan, Current World Archeology

“How did our museums become great storehouses of human remains? Bone Rooms chases answers…through shifting ideas about race, anatomy, anthropology, and archaeology and helps explain recent ethical standards for the collection and display of human dead.”
—Ann Fabian, author of The Skull Collectors

“Details the nascent views of racial science that evolved in U.S. natural history, anthropological, and medical museums…Redman effectively portrays the remarkable personalities behind [these debates]…pitting the prickly Aleš Hrdlička at the Smithsonian…against ally-turned-rival Franz Boas at the American Museum of Natural History.”
—David Hurst Thomas, Nature


  • [A] remarkable examination of scientific racism, biological anthropology, and the mission of medical museums.

    —Publishers Weekly (starred review)


  • Samuel J. Redman is the author of Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums, named a Nature Top 20 Book and a Smithsonian Top History Book. A specialist in American cultural and museum history, he is Associate Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and has worked at the Science Museum of Minnesota and the Field Museum in Chicago.

Book Details

  • 408 pages
  • 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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