(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.
Mounted Taxidermy Orangutan, Grant Museum of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy, 1917.
Content Warning: This essay contains racist language that has been included to illustrate historical documents as well as the colonial frame of museum collecting and curation. We do not condone the use of this language.
This taxidermied juvenile male Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) owned by the Grant Museum of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy at University College London is artefact of the history and legacy of eugenics at UCL. Here we take a closer look at some of the stories behind the object. Like the Horniman Museum’s famous overstuffed walrus, this specimen was the victim of ill-prepared taxidermists of the nineteenth century. But behind the blurry, bizarre appearance of the specimen lies the primate research of UCL Professors Karl Pearson and Francis Graham Crookshank.
The orangutan specimen is more than 100 years old (Grant Museum Catalogue, 2019). It lived in the London Zoo from 1913 to 1917. When it died in 1917, it was sent to Professor Hill, then Director of the Grant Museum, for preservation. Natural History Studio E. Gerrard & Sons preserved the skin and hair, but its bones are still missing. There is no information on the study or history of use of the specimen and the missing bones. The absence of the skeleton also makes it impossible to know whether the anatomy department used the specimens for examination or teaching.
Some of the Museum Studies students of past years have studied it in greater depth, giving us more insight into the story behind it (Bean et al. 2016). When they investigated the background of the orangutan entering the Grant Museum, they found a pattern of an increase in the number of accessioned skulls and jaws of primates at the same time when the orangutan was added to the Grant Museum (Bean et al. 2016, p.62). This interest can be linked to the genetics research of Karl Pearson, the first Galton Professor of Eugenics. In 1901, Professor Pearson founded the Biometrics Laboratory at UCL. He worked to build an idealized, pure-science laboratory by collecting and recording minute biometric data. It was hoped that this approach would transform eugenics into a rigorous biomedical and theoretical science, to provide a possible social science basis for political action and social legislation (Farrall, 2019, p.11).
Pearson’s interest in primates, including orangutans, could be found in his early research and in some of his personal letters, (Bean et al. 2016, pp.62-66). Pearson’s study of primate bones is illustrated in his 1917 publication A Study of The Long Bones of The English Skeleton Section II: The femur of the primates (atlas), with a measurement table and description of the characteristics of the primate femur at the end of the book. He compared the collected institutional data on primates with data on human femurs to study the origins of human physiology (Turner, 1921, p.125).
Scientific racism was a fundamental part of eugenics, which urged resistance to social degradation caused by racial “interbreeding” or “mixing” (Billinger, 2014). Despite what now seems to be an obvious fallacy, in the context of the development of the science of race, the orangutan was compared to disabled and Black and Asian people. For example, in University College Hospital-trained Francis Graham Crookshank’s now-notorious book: The Mongol in Our midst: A Study of Man and His Three Faces, he describes the physical characteristics of ‘Mongols’ or ‘imbeciles’, Japanese, and individuals from Annam and Indo-China, as ‘Orangoid’ (Crookshank, 1924, p.53).
The story of this object, once a living being, shows how the legacy of eugenics and scientific racism pervade many aspects of the history of both the social and biological sciences at UCL and beyond.
By Yiru Du
Bean, Kendra., Camp, Tayla., Hadaway, Kitty., O’Brien, Kathryn., and Stephenson, Lex. 2016. Z490 Mounted Taxidermy Orangutan, Internal UCL Report [Unpublished].
Billinger, Michael. 2014. Race and racialism. Eugenics Archive. Available at: http://eugenicsarchive.ca/discover/encyclopedia/535eeda67095aa000000024e.
Crookshank, Francis G. 1924. The Mongol in our Midst: a study of man and his three faces. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. Ltd. Available at: https://dlcs.io/pdf/wellcome/pdf-item/b18025110/0.
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).
Kohlman, Michael. 2015. F. G. Crookshank’s The Mongol in our Midst, To-day and To-morrow Series. Eugenics Archive. 8 January. Available at: http://eugenicsarchive.ca/discover/connections/54af0602bbec074ba8000037.
The Grant Museum of Zoology. nd. Pongo pygmaeus. Available at: Grant Museum of Zoology Online Catalogue - Detailed Object Information (ucl.ac.uk).
Turner, J. 1921. Reviewed Work: A Study of The Long Bones of The English Skeleton by Karl Pearson. The British Medical Journal 1(3134): 124-125. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20426353.
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.
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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.
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LDUAC-UCL1623ACCESSION 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.
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....