Anthropometry at the Field Museum

Anthropometry is the systematic measurement of human bodies for the purpose of studying human variation. Particularly in the 19th and early 20th centuries, anthropometry was misused to perpetuate racist and harmful stereotypes. Such misuse, often characterized as "race science," purported that certain individuals or groups of people were innately and biologically less "advanced" than others. Various forms of violence, including slavery, colonialism, and land dispossession, were (and continue to be) fueled and supported by this harmful misinterpretation of human diversity.

Anthropometry has been utilized throughout the Museum's history by anthropologists such as Franz Boas, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and Henry Field, in the 1920s and 1930s. Between 1888 and 1903, Boas conducted extensive anthropometric studies of Indigenous people from the United States and Canada. He sought to identify physical characteristics specific to Indigenous people and to investigate variability dependent upon "full" or "mixed" Indigenous descent. In preparation for Chicago's World Columbian Exposition (WCE) in 1893, Boas and Frederic Ward Putnam hired assistants to collect physical measurements of Indigenous North Americans. These collectors were directed to complete anthropometric data sheets and to obtain a lock of hair from each studied individual "whenever possible." Because the Field Museum's collections originated from the WCE and Franz Boas served as a curator for the Museum from 1893 to 1894, the Museum believes that this anthropometric data collection project is the most likely source of the 111 North American human hair samples.

In the 1920s, Museum curators continued anthropometric studies of global populations. Funded by eugenicist Sir Arthur Keith, they worked with artist Malvina Hoffman and various associates to conduct physical measurements, collect hair samples (the majority of non-North American hair samples cared for at the Field Museum originated from expeditions and research during this time), and construct bronze statues and busts of individuals from communities around the world. The results of this work led to the exhibit Races of Mankind, exhibited at the Museum from 1933-1969. Today, 50 of Hoffman's original sculptures are on view in an exhibition called Looking at Ourselves: Rethinking the Statues of Malvina Hoffman. This important revision to the original exhibition identifies many of the sculpted individuals by name and explores the problematic origins of the project in the context of "race science."

The Field Museum rejects the principles of "race science" and acknowledges our ongoing responsibility to address the Museum's historical contributions to racist thoughts and practices.