(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 figurine, head of an African male”, Institute of Archaeology Collections, date of manufacture unknown, collected early 20th Century.
This figurine is from the Hellenistic period and was collected by Robert Grenville Gayer-Anderson in the early 20th Century (Hartford et al. 2020, pp. 13–15). When the figurine was collected it was interpreted as a grotesque caricature that would have been used to humiliate African people or to catalogue and record different racial types (Hartford et al. 2020, p. 27). However, we can see that this interpretation of the object was made in the context of eugenics and racial science, and applies this contemporary perception of race onto the past; it is much more likely the ceramic did not hold these racist functions but was rather a decorative piece (Challis, 2015, p.40; Hartford et al. 2020, p.27).
In order to understand how racial science influenced the interpretation of material culture, it is important to look at the context of eugenics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Eugenicists believed in the superiority of white races over other human populations, perceiving them to be more intelligent and to have more “desirable” characteristics (Farrall, 2019, p. 51). We can see that this belief system was influenced by the social evolutionist movement which promoted race superiority and ranking (Diah et al. 2014, pp. 155–158). Partly based on Darwinian ideas of evolution, social evolutionists believed that some societies were not as culturally evolved as European and North American societies (Diah et al. 2014, pp. 155–158). We can see these ideas reflected in eugenic principles, which viewed race as a method of ranking people’s intelligence and morals.
The application of Darwinian evolution and the use of biological and mathematical techniques in the study of eugenics, gave the practice prestige and support as it was seen to be based on science (Farrall, 2019, pp. 48–54). Furthermore, the establishment of a research institute for Eugenics at UCL (first The Biometric School and later The Galton Eugenics Laboratory) increased the reputation of eugenics as a science (Farrall, 2019, pp. 48–54). Eugenicists applied statistics and Darwinian evolution to humans, believing that measuring the shape of the face, facial features and skull size could give insight into the values and intellectual ability of a person (Perry and Challis, 2013, p. 278; Farrall, 2019, pp. 55–56). This practice was used to justify racist ideals, as populations were physically analysed and ranked.
The interpretation of this ceramic head was clearly influenced by the eugenic beliefs that were prevalent at the time, as evidenced through the use of offensive language on the label. While the word on the label may have been in widespread use at the time, the offensive nature of this word was clear and its appearance in the label demonstrates the racist context in which the object was being interpreted. Furthermore, there is no evidence to support the suggestion that this ceramic is a grotesque caricature used to humiliate Africans, rather this interpretation places contemporary biases onto the object (Challis, 2015, p. 40; Hartford et al. 2020, p. 27). In fact, this type of mass produced figurine was often used to commemorate theatrical performances or as decoration for the home (Hartford et al. 2020, pp.26–27).
We can see that the eugenic principles of measuring facial features and categorising persons based on their physical appearance, clearly played a role in the formation of this biased interpretation. The immediate assumption that a figurine with typically African features was a tool of humiliation rather than an object of beauty undoubtedly draws upon the eugenic beliefs that white races were superior in their intelligence and morals. It therefore seems clear that this piece has been reimagined to have a racist purpose due to the ideals held by those collecting and cataloguing it. Such reimaginations of objects in this way can be seen throughout many collections gathered during this time, and one particular collection bares a lot of similarities to our ceramic head.
One collection which bares significant similarities to this object, and may have influenced Gayer-Anderson’s collecting of the figurine, is Flinders Petrie’s “race collection.” Petrie’s work drew upon racial science principles to measure physical differences between races, attempting to group these differences and correlate them to his view of their relative intelligence (Challis, 2015, pp. 37–40). During this work Petrie measured skull dimensions and brain mass, mapping these on graphs. He took this a step further by collecting the ‘Memphis “race” heads.’ This was a collection of small, terracotta heads from Graeco-Roman Egypt, much like the ceramic head Gayer-Anderson collected. Petrie used these heads to argue that Graco-Egyptian artists had been carefully recording racial types (Challis, 2015, pp. 37–40), just as he was attempting to do through his work measuring skulls. It is likely that this collection influenced Gayer-Anderson’s own collecting of this ceramic head, as he would have been aware of Petrie’s work in both Egyptology and eugenics (Hartford et al. 2020, p.28). Just as we can see the influence of eugenics on the interpretation of this ceramic figure, the assumption that Petrie’s collection represented different “ethnic types” again projects contemporary opinions about race onto the past (Challis, 2015, p. 40).
In conclusion, we can see that the context of eugenics and racial science had a huge influence on the collection and interpretation of this object. The relationship between science and eugenics gave the study support and prestige, meaning that the collecting of “race” objects was encouraged, especially with the opening of the eugenic research institutes. While the figurine was likely used for decoration, the racist ideas that were prevalent at the time meant that it was automatically seen as a way to categorise people and to rank them due to their physical appearance. The assumption that Graeco-Egyptians saw this figurine as a way to humiliate African people clearly indicates the emphasis that was placed on physical and especially facial features in the early 20th century and their assumed relation to morals and intelligence, as evidenced in a number of other objects in the exhibition.
By Matilda Davis
Challis, Debbie. 2015. The Petrie Museum of “Race” Archaeology? Think Pieces: A Journal of the Joint Faculty Institute of Graduate Studies, University College London 1: 34–43. Available at: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1460733/1/4%20PAST%20Challis%20The %20Petrie%20Museum%20of%20'Race'%20Archaeology.pdf.
Diah, Nurazzura M., Hossain, Dewan M., Mustari, Sohela., and Ramli, Noor S. 2014. An Overview of the Anthropological Theories. International Journal of Humanities and Social Science 4(101): 155–164. Available at: http://ijhssnet.com/journals/Vol_4_No_10_1_August_2014/19.pdf.
Farrall, Lyndsay A. 2019. The Origins and Growth of the English Eugenics Movement, 1865-1925. STS Occasional Papers Number 9. Available at: lyndsay-andrew-farrall-2019-origins-growth-english-eugenics-movement-9781787510012.pdf (ucl.ac.uk).
Hartford, Alexis., Phillips, Rhian M., Sharrard, Olivia., and Waterfield, Jodi. 2020. Ceramic Caricature Figurines Report. Internal UCL Report [Unpublished].
Perry, Sara., and Challis, Debbie. 2013. Flinders Petrie and the Curation of Heads. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 38(3): 275–89. DOI: 10.1179/0308018813Z.00000000052
LDUCZ-Z490ACCESSION 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.
Mounted Taxidermy Orangutan, Grant Museum of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy, 1917.
This taxidermied juvenile male Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) owned by the Grant Museum of Zoology....
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.
The racial ‘type’ head from Memphis, is a terracotta statue head, possibly made from Nile Silt clay....
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.
How does the field of anthropology, particularly the act of collection of an object, put into the context of....
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.
Far too often we avert our eyes and ears from unpleasant history. Claim it long gone or....