(a note on content)
Some of the stories in the exhibition feature racist, ableist, and/or homophobic medical terms which are offensive. As curators and writers of this exhibition, we have done our best to use these terms responsibly, with a view to appropriately contextualising and exploring these ideas and their history, and encouraging continuing critical thought in the interests of positive social change in the future.
While trying to address these issues squarely, we are also aware that we may ourselves use racist and ableist language naively or in error. As such, we welcome corrections and suggestions for improving the language used here, and encourage you to get in touch with us to help us learn and improve the language of the exhibition if you feel we have done so. The exhibition also features images of pathology specimens which include human organs.
Ceramic head, “Ceramic caricature male head, tongue sticking out”, Institute of Archaeology Collections, date of manufacture unknown, collected early 20th Century.
Content Warning: This essay contains racist and ableist language and caricatures cited from original documents. We do not condone the use of this language.
Perhaps in an attempt to comprehend our exceptionalism in a universe of unknowns, our attempts to reflect ourselves are immortalised in the stone and ceramic of palaeolithic cave art to Greaco-Roman statues. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this inquisitiveness was elevated through Darwin’s discoveries of the natural world, prompting scientists to theorise how we may utilise this knowledge to improve our own existence. Yet by 1883, this questioning devolved into concepts of hierarchy and difference, manifesting in eugenics (Wright, 2009, p.65). This ideology gained credence through a plethora of globally interconnected disciplines from statistics to anthropology, in which the amassing of "race" collections was popularised in the aim of segregating humanity by physical difference.
This collection of figurines was collected by Robert Grenville Gayer-Anderson in the twentieth century, in what is considered to be an attempt to create such a collection. Constructed out of terracotta, these archaeologically commonplace objects are estimated to have originated around Alexandria from approximately 300BC to 50AD (Mitchell, 2013, p. 276). Yet their original functions are contradicted through Gayer-Anderson’s labelling in which he reduces them to offensive stereotypes through defining terminology such as "Dwarf," "Negro" and "Jew." Upon Gayer-Anderson’s death in 1945, the figurines were bequeathed to the Museum of Classical Archaeology where their descriptions remained unchanged until the 1990s. Their terminology shows how historical depictions of human difference were perverted to justify eugenic definitions of sub-normality. Whilst its persistence highlights museums’ roles as enablers in the dissemination and mobilisation of eugenics.
As eugenics sought to engineer "perfection," physical disabilities such as "dwarfism" were viewed as contradictory. The negative labelling of LDUAC-UCL1592 as a “grotesque figure of a nude distorted dwarf” is reflective of this. The offensive nature of this description is highlighted by the contrasting contemporary scholarly consensus that dwarfism was viewed positively in Ancient Egypt, and people with dwarfism were given visible roles within society (Kozma, 2006, p.311). This figurine is therefore considered to have been a mass-produced art caricature, depicting dancing or acting.
However, the first half of the twentieth century in Europe and the US, witnessed a change in the public perception of disability. Fuelled by the increasing cost of care and greater visibility due to increased outpatient treatments those with disabilities became seen as a burden to society (Mostert, 2002, p. 160). Eugenicists reinforced this by stating it as irrefutable scientific fact. In Germany, these ideas were mobilised by the Nazis, who’s genocidal ambitions were first tested in May 1939, when Hitler created a committee to oversee the widespread murder of disabled children, under the pseudo-scientific moniker ‘The Committee for the Scientific Treatment of Severe, Genetically Determined Illnesses’. During its operation until 1943, more than 6000 children had been murdered (Mostert, 2002, p.163). This program aided in the creation of its adult equivalent ‘Aktion T-4’, which transformed asylums into killing stations resulting in the deaths of over 80,000 disabled people (Proctor, 1988).
Whilst the heritability of disability and its offence to a "perfect" society, remained central to eugenic concepts, questions of "race" and subsequent hierarchy were also integral. Gayer-Anderson’s labelling LDUAC-UCL1623 as a "Negro" within this "race collection" is reflective of these attitudes as in doing so he relegates darker skin to an offensive stereotype. This contrasts with recent scholarly opinion that this figurine depicts a Greek ideal of beauty (Barret, 2009, p. 408).
Instead, concepts of "black inferiority" have been mobilised, particularly in the United States. Dramatic changes to American society in the twentieth century fuelled eugenicist fears of racial miscegenation, or insurrection and consequent societal degeneration. The US therefore embarked on controlling black populations through birth control, under the pretence that these people were feebleminded, defective, and criminal (Monroe and Rudolph, 2005, p. 19). For instance, in 1927 the US Supreme Court in Buck V Bell condones forced sterilization for the "betterment of society."
Consequently, between 20-30,000 people in psychiatric hospitals and jails were sterilised, with a disproportionate amount being minority men and women (Overbeck, 2019, p. 27). By the 1950s, the situation escalated in the passing of bills punishing black women for having illegitimate children with prison time and fines, whilst also coercing them into sterilisation procedures (Overbeck, 2019, p.156). Eugenicists concepts of "black inferiority" also permitted experimentation on black bodies. Notably the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study, where black men were treated unknowingly with placebos to study the progression of the illness between the 1930s and 1970s (Monroe and Rudolph, 2005, p.25).
Although initially eugenicists struggled to attribute physical characteristics to Jewish people that differentiated them from the "superior white race," twentieth century fears over immigration reified a pseudo-scientific racial stereotype reflected in the labelling of LDUAC-UCL1328 as "Jewish" (Falk, 2010, p.1). Traditional religious and socio-cultural prejudices were then reinterpreted as linked to inherent undesirable biological properties and manipulated in propaganda that reduced Jewish people to physical characteristics, such as the "pointed and hooked nose" as in Gayer-Anderson's description of LDUAC-UCL1328.
Under the Third Reich Nazi leaders asserted that “Jewish Policy” was based on scientific evidence that purported the idea of Jewish inferiority and the risk of German social degeneracy. In 1935, Hitler created the Nuremberg Race Laws, thereby defining Jews not by religious belief but by ancestry and by extension as a race definable by physical difference. Such legislation foregrounded the eradication of 1.7 million Jews in 1943 with Aktion Reinhardt (Operation Reinhardt) (Black, 2016, p.81).
As monolithic, bastions of knowledge museums have extraordinary power to shape public opinion and disseminate knowledge. Indeed, in receiving Gayer-Anderson’s collection of caricatures and keeping his originally labelling, it demonstrates the pervasiveness of prejudice against human difference and the determination of eugenics to seek historical justification. In doing so, museums have reflected and encouraged the mobilisation of difference. So next time you visit a museum observe the labels and consider that an object’s biography may not be as linear as it first appears. For in questioning the validity of museum practices of days past we work to deconstruct the legacy of eugenics, instead creating a space that celebrates the unique wonder of our human difference.
By Helena Smith-Parucker
Barret, Caitlin E. 2009. Diversity within domestic cult: A contextual analysis of Egyptianising terracotta figurines from Delos. New Haven: Yale University.
Black, Jeremy. 2016. The Holocaust: History and Memory. Indiana: Indiana University Press.
Burdett, Emmeline. 2011. The Continent of Murder: Disability and the Nazi Euthanasia Debates of Britain and the United States, 1945-present. PhD Thesis. University College London.
Falk, Raphael. 2010. Eugenics and the Jews, in Alison, Bashford., and Levine, Philippa. (eds). The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics. Online: Oxford University Press. 1-16.
Kozma, Chahira. 2006. Dwarfs in Ancient Egypt. American Journal of Medical Genetics 140(A): 303- 311. DOI: 10.1002/ajmg.a.31068
Mitchell, Alexandre G. 2013. Disparate Bodies in Ancient Artefacts: The Function of Caricature and Pathological Grotesques among Roman Terracotta Figurines, in Christian, Laes., Goddey, Chris, and Rose, M Lynn. (eds.) Disabilities in Roman Antiquity: Disparate Bodies A Capite ad Calcem. Boston: Brill. 275 -298.
Monroe, Jacquelyn., and Rudolph, Alexander. 2005. C.R.A.C.K: A Progeny of Eugenics and a Forlorn Representation for African Americans. Journal of African American Studies 9(1):19-31. DOI: 10.1007/s12111-005-1013-9
Mostert, Mark P. 2002. Useless Eaters: Disability as Genocidal Marker in Nazi Germany.The Journal of Special Education 36(3): 157-170. DOI: 10.1177/00224669020360030601
Overbeck, Anne. 2019. At The Heart of It All: Discourses on the Reproductive Rights of African American Women in the 20th Century. Berlin: De Gruyter Oldenbourg.
Proctor, Robert. 1988. Racial Hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
Wright, James D. 2009. The Founding Fathers of Sociology: Francis Galton, Adolphe Quetelet, and Charles Booth, or what do people you probably never heard of have to do with the foundations of sociology. Journal of Applied Social Science 3(2): 63-72 DOI: 10.1177/193672440900300206
LDUCE-UC33278ACCESSION NUMBER: A unique identifier assigned to, and achieving initial control of, each acquisition. Assignment of accession numbers typically occurs at the point of accessioning or cataloging.
Racial ‘type’ head from Memphis, Petrie Museum of Egyptian and Sudanese Archaeology, date of manufacture unknown, purchased or excavated early 20th century.
In the Petrie Museum at UCL, there is a painted terracotta sculpture of a head, which was either....
LDUEC-I.0035ACCESSION NUMBER: A unique identifier assigned to, and achieving initial control of, each acquisition. Assignment of accession numbers typically occurs at the point of accessioning or cataloging.
Southern African Beaded Girdle, UCL Ethnography Collections, late 19th/early 20th century.
In the UCL Ethnography Collection, one can find object I.0035, a beaded Zulu girdle from South Africa....
LDUGC-040ACCESSION NUMBER: A unique identifier assigned to, and achieving initial control of, each acquisition. Assignment of accession numbers typically occurs at the point of accessioning or cataloging.
Hair Colour Gauge, UCL Science Collections (Galton Collection), 1905.
In the Galton Collection at UCL lies a peculiar object. What could be mistaken for a large glasses....
LDUGC-095ACCESSION NUMBER: A unique identifier assigned to, and achieving initial control of, each acquisition. Assignment of accession numbers typically occurs at the point of accessioning or cataloging.
Sweet Pea Measuring Device, UCL Science Collections (Galton Collection), c.1870s.
Heredity refers to the genetic processes by which certain characteristics are transmitted from parent to offspring....
LDUCPC-SOHO P.6ACCESSION NUMBER: A unique identifier assigned to, and achieving initial control of, each acquisition. Assignment of accession numbers typically occurs at the point of accessioning or cataloging.
Gold IUD and Uterus, UCL Pathology Collections, 1945-1988.
This gold-plated stem pessary is an early version of an intrauterine device (IUD). This contraceptive device would....