Once banished, controversial race exhibit resurfaces at Chicago museum

March 4, 2016 at 4:47 PM EDT
In a new exhibit, Chicago's Field Museum has revived elements from its controversial 1933 show, "Races of Mankind," consisting of 104 bronze statues that depict races from around the world. Most of the statues were banished by 1969 as public opinion on race evolved. NewsHour's Megan Thompson reports on the return of the dubious display.

MEGAN THOMPSON: At Chicago’s Field Museum, these bronze statues relegated to storage for decades are back on display in a conscious attempt to be provocative about the hot-button topic of race. Alaka Wali is an anthropologist and curator of the exhibit.

ALAKA WALI: Get the conversation going around these issues using this amazing artwork to do that.

MEGAN THOMPSON: The story of this exhibit starts in the late 1920’s, with Malvina Hoffman, an American sculptor who lived in Paris and had studied with Auguste Rodin. The Field Museum commissioned her to sculpt 104 so-called “racial types” that the curators wanted to depict.

ALAKA WALI: And they were like, “We want one of this type. We want one of that type.” They thought that she could sort of create this composite from different people into this one type that would represent the entire population.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Hoffman took more than 3 years to create the mostly bronze sculptures based on photographs and live models.

ALAKA WALI: And then she traveled the world, she went by boat, she went by camel. She went by elephant to parts of Asia, parts of Africa, met people, encountered them.

MEGAN THOMPSON: The museum unveiled the “Races of Mankind” exhibit in 1933 to coincide with the Chicago World’s Fair. The exhibit was popular and remained on display for decades.

MEGAN THOMPSON: At the time, racial divisions in the U.S. were stark, and many parts of the world remained colonized. Scientists and anthropologists classified people in racial groups based on biological traits, like how a person looked. Some groups were considered more advanced than others.

ALAKA WALI: So they started coming up with these categories, primitive, barbaric. And the only ones who could be considered civilized were the Europeans.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Wali says today the theories are considered “scientific racism.” But the thinking influenced Hoffman’s work. For example, a chiseled bodybuilder from Brooklyn depicted almost like a Greek God was chosen to portray the “nordic” type.

ALAKA WALI: Classic kind of, you know, features of what the stereotype of a Northern European would be.

MEGAN THOMPSON: On the other hand, sculptures of the San People of Southern Africa’s Kalahari Desert showed a mother crouched on the ground and a father with bow and arrow.

ALAKA WALI: They were considered among the most primitive of the primitive, because at the time they were still a people who were what we in anthropology would call hunter-gatherers or foragers.

MEGAN THOMPSON: But the San weren’t primitive at all. They extracted an extremely nutritious diet from the barren desert, and had complex traditions of storytelling, music, and art.  Hoffman sometimes disagreed with the Field Museum Curators. She wasn’t comfortable creating a composite of each racial type, like they wanted.

ALAKA WALI: And she said, “No, these people are individuals.”  ‘Cause she was talking to them, you know, in her travels. You have to see these people as individuals.  And so there was that kind of tension.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Hoffman prevailed. Each statue was of an actual person and the new exhibit lists many of their real names.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Millions of people saw the statues during the next thirty years. But by the 1960’s, thinking about race had changed. Culture, not biology, explains differences in how people live and behave.

MEGAN THOMPSON: University of Chicago Professor Michael Dawson, who specializes in the politics of race and ethnicity, says while the sculptures may be works of art, the exhibit was based on archaic ideas of race that have been abandoned.

MICHAEL DAWSON: By the 1960s and 1970s, there’s real pushback on either cultural or biological conceptions of race, particularly those that were associated with some type of hierarchy or some type of sense of one race being superior, even if it’s culturally superior.

MEGAN THOMPSON: By the 1960’s, much of Africa and Asia were de-colonized, and in the U.S. the Civil Rights Movement, including the Black Power Movement, changed attitudes.

MICHAEL DAWSON: So what you saw in Chicago and throughout the country was very angry populations that were very well organized and very mobilized and were thinking at a very fundamental way, “How do we change institutions to make them more just?”

MEGAN THOMPSON: In 1969 the museum removed the “Races of Mankind” exhibit.

ALAKA WALI: The new generations of curators were uncomfortable. They were embarrassed by the exhibit by that point.

MEGAN THOMPSON: The statues were scattered around the museum or put in storage.  But Wali says she felt they could serve a purpose once again.

ALAKA WALI: You don’t want to waste that opportunity to reinstall them in some way, and talk very openly about the history of race in our country.

MEGAN THOMPSON: After a major restoration project, the museum remounted 50 of the statues in a new exhibit called, “Looking at Ourselves: Rethinking the Sculptures of Malvina Hoffman.” It contains a section on the “Black Lives Matter” movement of today. Digital displays counter old notions linking human behavior with physical traits.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Michael Dawson says the exhibit helps put racial misunderstanding in a historical context.

MICHAEL DAWSON: I don’t know how we move forward unless we understand our past better.  And have a discussion about how that past still affects us.

MEGAN THOMPSON: The Field Museum exhibit will be on display through the end of the year.