From the Museum pictum to the specimen in Museums: Conclusions
professeur d’Histoire des sciences / directeur d’études

(Oxford University / EHESS)

In her opening chapter, Anne Lafont traces the transition between the drawings of African women and men, to the public exhibition of their bodies as objects of “scientific” and at times morbid curiosity, over the space of a century, from the 1740s to the 1840s. Lafont rightly underlines the significant impact of the slave trade on the implicit and explicit codes of representation of the pretended utter diversity of their humanity. Many even doubted that slaves, a mere commodity, were actually humans. The act of drawing thus became a form of ownership; to a large extent, drawings constituted the prelude to widespread forms of commercial and ideological exploitation of the women and men represented.

To complement Lafont’s fascinating insights, I would like to briefly add that drawings and paintings were central to a long tradition of representing the exotic, exotic human forms included. Drawings could easily travel and constituted the basis for more elaborate pictorial expressions; drawings and paintings were integral parts of natural history collections and cabinet of curiosities. Since the mid-1500s, drawings and paintings constituted the core of the huge collections amassed by Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605); to quote a further famous example, the Museo cartaceo assembled by Cassiano dal Pozzo (1588-1657) also included representations of natural history objects, set alongside material specimens1. Drawings were the next best source of information available on natural and artificial objects, second only to αὐτοψία, the personal sensory inspection. Drawings executed under the eyes of the observer, or by the observer itself, enjoyed a high ontological and epistemological status. Thus, Aldrovandi included the drawings and pictures of all sorts of human monsters living in deserts or in thick forests, as testified by classic or more recent sources claiming to have observed them.

The creation of large-scale natural history Museums towards the end of the XVIIIth century, and the triumph of the museums and natural history collections or institutions of acclimatisation during the XIXth century, as symbols of the might of colonial powers, only increased the role of drawings in natural history practices. Sitting on the rich collections gathered by the revolutionary and Imperial armies, Cuvier launched from the Parisian Muséum national d’histoire naturelle a world-wide search for descriptions and pictorial representations of fossils. He used the Annales du Muséum, and the follow up series, the Mémoires (which were not published by the Muséum, as often assumed, but by a kind of cooperative the Professors were shareholders of) to commission the printing of about one thousand extra copies of the tables of illustrations that adorned his palaeontological articles. Lithographed drawings were the currency used in the natural-history market to reciprocate information. Finally, in areas such as palaeontology, drawings remained a prime tool of representation of paleontological discoveries or taxonomic proposals until the introduction of sophisticated electronic imaging. Drawings allowed the representation of selected features of the fossil, those on which the diagnostics and subsequent taxonomic determination were based. Not even photography undermined the centrality of drawings: indeed, photographs could never match the epistemological intention and taxonomic refinement of the drawing2.

Concerning human beings, from medieval bestiaries and throughout the XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries, sirens and mermaids, but also male and female human-like apes, were represented in drawings and woodcuts, and at times even exhibited: few doubted they did not faithfully represent the natural beings observed by mariners and voyagers. Linnaeus certified the existence of humans hidden in forests (homo feralis); up to the beginning of the XIXth century naturalists speculated on how mankind could conquer the depths of the sea from where it had emerged a long time ago, through surgery performed on new-born babies, thus adapting them to breathe again in water. Well into the XIXth century, drawings, paintings, lithographs of exotic creatures kept fuelling popular imagination, in spite of the claim by naturalists working on State institutions to the monopoly of taxonomic knowledge. Equally, public exhibitions of hairy women and men, dwarfs, wild boys and girls, or apes presented as the link between men and animals, continued to produce income for the entrepreneurs of the profitable market of marvels.

As Anne Lafont has shown, Saartjie Baartman, the Hottentot Venus measured and then dissected by Georges Cuvier and his colleagues, was at the same time an “object” of display – indeed, she had been brought to Europe for that purpose – and of study. During the early decades of the XIXth century and beyond, several types of public exhibitions of exotic or wondrous human and natural phenomena were reclaimed by a scientific community trying to establish their authority over fashionable public opinion. “Scientists” had to compete for the representation and interpretation of the exotic and the wonderful. For instance, still in 1846 the Parisian Academy of Sciences unsuccessfully summoned the “electrical girl”, who exhibited extraordinary magnetic powers for a reasonable fee, to be examined by an ad hoc high-power commission. The “electrical girl” and her manager simply refused to appear3. It is thus problematic to introduce a sharp distinction between the professional naturalist and the general public, the cultivated public in particular, since the former surely shared many of the interests of the latter; naturalists strived to display their competent judgement on the wonderous matters attracting widespread attention, thus becoming themselves part of the news and of the show.

I would finally like to stress, contrary to prevailing historiographic consensus, that the fascination with marvellous and wondrous beings did not end with the XVIIIth century. The Roman and Nordic medieval tales concerning the existence of the Kraken, a gigantic octopus reportedly capable of plunging ships to perdition, never lost their fascination. In the early XIXth century Pierre-Denys de Montfort (1766-1820) provided taxonomic evidence for the existence of the gigantic beast, to whom he attributed the sinking of various ships. The episode, today treated as the oddity of an odd amateur naturalist (he was in fact a rather capable and fashionable conchologist and specialist of marine invertebrates), did attract considerable public and “scientific” attention, and even inspired Jules Verne. De Montfort was actually referring to rare sighting of remains of the gigantic deep-sea squid Architeuthis4. Public displays of Siamese twins, dwarfs or bearers of abnormalities, as well as the display of monstrous foetuses, continued in France (and elsewhere) well into the XIXth century, as perusal of the Gazette médicale can confirm5.

Concerning the supposed diversity of human beings, some naturalists, as Anne Lafont has pointed out, tried to introduce rigour and precision in their classification of populations: the facial angle, measured by Peter Camper (1722-1789), or the occipital one privileged by Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton (1716-1800), called upon geometry to introduce hierarchies of cranial, and therefore, moral and intellectual prerogatives separating human groups from each other, and the bearers of the “lower” angles from animals [Image 1]. To the advocates of rigor and mathematical precision, the colour of the skin, or the texture of the hair were less indicative of hierarchy than the demonstrative and seemingly “neutral” strength of geometry.

Paul Topinard, Anthropologie

“The anterior half represents the skull intact, in order to show the inferior border of the orbit;

the posterior half represents the skull open fort the purpose of showing the occipital foramen and its two median points, anterior and posterior.

O, Opisthion, or posterior border of the occipital foramen, hidden by the centre of the dial of the goniometer;

B, Basion; D, Inferior border of the orbit, or anterior terminating point of the line of Daubenton;

N, Nasal point preferred by M. Broca; D’D O D’’, Line of Daubenton;

A B O A’, Plane of occipital foramen prolonged both ways; A O D, Occipital angle of Daubeton;

A O C, Occipital angle of Broca; A B E, Basilar angle of Broca; K, Basilar groove; L, Sella turcica;

I, External occipital protuberance, or inion; J, Internal occipital protuberance.”


Paul Topinard, Anthropology, with Preface by Professor Paul Broca, London, Chapman and Hall, 1878, p. 54.

Yet, popular treatises on man immediately appropriated the system of geometrical parameters (Camper, Daubenton or Johann-Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840) were in fact monogenists), to advocate the existence of separate species of man, and publicized widely spread racial stereotypes of physiognomic appearances or body postures. The illustrations to Julien-Joseph Virey’s (1776-1845) Histoire naturelle du genre humain (1801), for instance, were reprinted by the racial literature of Europe and the United States. In the case of Virey, or of another popular polygenist, Jean-Baptiste Bory de Saint-Vincent (1778-1846), the events in Saint Domingue, where French and British troops had been defeated by armies of former slaves led by François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture (1743-1803), racial stereotypes turned into a “science” of race functioned as an effective ideological call for preventive action. Systemic violence against slaves and reinforced brutalisation of their condition could have prevented the danger of further rebellions. Virey famously insisted that black people were much less sensible than whites, and for this reason they had to be hit very hard when punished.

Specimens and Museums

In the economy of this special issue, Anne Lafont’s provocative contribution highlighted the visual pre-conditions for the creation of major anthropological and ethnographic collections, and for the practice of exhibiting living women and men during much of the XIXth century.

The main corpus of the present volume is in fact offering case studies of institutions established or flourishing in the second half of the XIXth century, in the heydays of anthropology and ethnography, or within the context of a seemingly radical critique of their funding presuppositions, as it is the case with the relatively recent ethnographic museum of Suita, Osaka (1974). In spite of the variety and global coverage of the institutions selected (two in Italy, one in Argentina, one in Mexico and one in Japan), some common trends emerge: the far from linear history of the institutions concerned; the relation to the history of the countries where these institutions thrived more or less successfully; the question of the attitudes of living representatives of the ethnic groups on display; the thorny issue of the reclamation of human remains; and the questioning of the very existence of such institutions, as it is the case with the attempts to close down the Lombroso Museum in Turin. My comments will not necessarily follow the order of pagination of the various contribution, and will vary in length, for lack of competence on many of the issues covered in this volume, especially the ones concerning the Latin American and Japanese Museums.

Italy: a new Power in XIXth century Europe?

Three contributions of this special issue deal with Italian case stories: the Museum initiated by Cesare Lombroso, its complex heritage and presence in todays’ Italian news, deserve two studies, whereas one is devoted to the ill-famed Florentine “Museo nazionale di antropologia e di etnologia”, and to the collection of facial masks of African and Far East individuals the Museum acquired from the mid of the nineteenth century to the first three decades of the twentieth. To start with the latter, Lucia Piccioni reconstructs the history of the Museo since its inception in 1870, starting with the collecting activity of anthropologist and public intellectual Paolo Mantegazza (1831-1910). As it will be the case with analogous museums in Latin America, the Museo was at first an (almost) empty shell, made precious by the relics of Captain Cook’s expedition the Lorena princes had acquired.

Italy had become in March 1861 a unified, large albeit backward European State. In 1864-1865 the capital had been transferred from Turin to Florence, and the town underwent a programme of urban remodelling that lasted several decades even after 1871, when Rome was finally crowned capital of the Kingdom. The Florence tourists admire today would be unrecognizable to people living there in 1860. The Piedemontese élites and their allies in the national parliament in Turin and Florence – and afterwards in Rome – debated the infrastructural and cultural measures indispensable to modernize and unify the peninsula. Mantegazza took advantage of the foundation fervour and almost single-handedly established the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology, an institution any modern Power had to host, in order to support the inevitable and indispensable colonial expansion.

Italy, like Germany, was a late comer in the colonization frenzy, in spite of a long tradition of exploration travels in the African continent and the Far-East6. Piedemontese authorities tried as early as the late 1860s and throughout the 1870s to buy possessions in the Far East, initially to find remote lands on which to confine criminals and brigands, in imitation of what England had done with Australia. Towards the end of the century and during Fascism, the conquest of “un posto al sole”, a place in the Sun, appeared a patriotic duty befitting an aspiring world power. It did not end well for Italy nor for “our” colonies, many thousand deaths later.

Piccioni narrates the history of the Museum against the background of Italian politics, from Unification to Fascism, up to the more recent past. The fate of the Museum mirrored the alternating fate of anthropological and racial theorizing, with collections moving out of sight when the sight became (understandably) morally and politically unbearable. This happened to the facial masks Mantegazza collected and mainly bought from the German colonialist and amateur ornithologist turned ethnographer Otto Finsch (1839-1917). Finsch exploited for anthropological and commercial advantage the technique of plaster modelling – a rather unpleasant and potentially harmful business for the subjects who more or less willingly submitted to the application of the plaster, he himself acknowledged7.

Like Finsch, Mantegazza privileged masks (carefully painted in order to render the original skin colour and texture) over crania, in a rebuke to Lombroso’s reliance on the latter. Mantegazza, it needs to be emphasized, was among the few contemporary naturalists who showed experimentally how deceiving skulls could be: expert physical anthropologists engaged in a blind test grossly failed attributing given crania to one ethnic group or the other. Moreover, as Finsch had argued, observation in the field showed how abstract and unreliable craniological categorization could be: the race types described in textbooks did not reflect the endless variety of cranial shape, skin colour, and hair structure the traveller met with within a given geographical region and even in the same island. Paul Broca’s chromatic scale for defining the skin colour of separate races only worked in metropolitan academic settings: it helped very little in the field8. Facial masks were seen as a remedy to the abstractions of theoretical physical anthropology.

Hilary S. Howes, « “It is not so !” Otto Finsch, Expectations and Encounters in the Pacific, 1865-85 », Historical Records of Australian Science, 22, 2011, p. 33.
Otto Finsch, Masks of Faces of Races of Men from the South Sea Island and the Malay Archipelago, Rochester, N. Y., Ward’s Natural Science Establishment, 1888.

on the left: Hilary S. Howes, « “It is not so !” Otto Finsch, Expectations and Encounters in the Pacific, 1865-85 »,

Historical Records of Australian Science, 22, 2011, p. 33.


on the right: Otto Finsch, Masks of Faces of Races of Men from the South Sea Island and the Malay Archipelago, Rochester, N. Y., Ward’s Natural Science Establishment, 1888 [].

It is interesting to note that European and United States scientific institutions were not alone in buying all or part of the collection of 157 masks offered by Finsch through a catalogue authoritatively prefaced by Rudolph Virchow (1821-1902)9. To blur the distinction between “official” museum or academic anthropology, and the market of the marvellous, copies of Finsch’s plaster masks were also displayed by the Castan brothers, owners of the Panopticon, a popular wax and exotic garden establishment. I mentioned above the historiographical assumption that cabinet of curiosities and the popular attraction for the exotic, the morbid and the monstrous, ended sometimes at the end of the XVIIIth century, with the growth of contemporary-like science. To emphasize once again the anachronistic nature of the assumption, I will limit myself with quoting a fascinating article by Hilary Howes, to which I am indebted: “Castan’s Panopticon (in operation 1869-1922) rapidly expanded to include ethnographic objects, medical statues representing ‘diseased and healthy sexual organs’, and live performances by ‘freaks and ethnic’ ‘rarities’”, along with “curiosities such as elephant tusks, mummies, staffed alligators, gorillas”10.


Finsch, Masque

Original mask photographed at the Australian Museum

Number: unknown, Finsch catalogue number: 128.


See Otto Finsch, Anthropologische Ergebnisse einer Reise in der Südsee und den malayischen Archipel in den Jahren 1879-1882. Beschreibender Catalog der auf dieser Reise gesammelten Gesichtsmasken von Völkertypen, herausgegeben mit Unterstützung der Berliner anthropologischen Gesellschaft (Berlin: A. Asher & Co., 1884), p. 25. 

catalogue information: Category: New Zealand (Maori). Person’s name: Ngapaki Puni. Place of residence: Pitone [Petone] near Wellington. Description: “None of the peoples of the Pacific presented such difficulties in obtaining plaster casts as the Maori. My eventual success, after many vain and in some cases expensive attempts, is only due to the mediation of my friend Dr W. Buller in Wellington. It was only out of friendship and respect for him that several natives eventually allowed themselves to be persuaded to undergo this not very pleasant procedure […] Ngapaki Puni, chief of the Ngatiawa [Ngāti Awa] tribe […] One of the oldest Maori chiefs still living and one of the last with a complete facial tattoo […] A dignified old man around 65 years of age, with straight grey hair […] and a white beard […] Ngapaki Puni is the oldest son of the famous chief Honiana Te Puni, a loyal friend to the first settlers, commemorated by a publicly funded stone monument on the seashore near Pitone [Petone]. The history of this great chief can be found in [Edward Jerningham] Wakefield, his portrait is in the Colonial Museum in Wellington, and he is the native in the life-size oil painting depicting Dr Featherston, Superintendent of Wellington, and the Hon. Mr Jaks.”

Photographic work and caption kindly provided by Dr. Hilary Howes, Australian National University, College of Arts and Social Sciences

The Lombroso "scandal"

The criminological collection put together by Lombroso suffered an almost mirror fate with respect to the masks gathered in Florence. Hailed during Lombroso’s lifetime, damned during Fascism (for the wrong reason of Lombroso being a Jew from Verona), restored and brought back to life in a wonderful pedagogical Museum during the 1980s-1990s, there are now persistent attempts to confine the lot to the cellars, as the Florentine masks had been. Silvano Montaldo and Maddalena Carli have reconstructed with impeccable scholarship and clarity the vicissitudes of the Lombroso Museum, and detailed the improbable coalition of arguments and political forces now asking for its suppression. I will allude below to the polemical exchanges and petitions demanding the closure of the Museum.

As a preliminary to this, I would like to point out the usefulness of the Lombroso Museum (I thereby declare my stand on this issue), the result of important scholarly work and innovative museographic choices, in the light of today’s ideological and political climate – or, appropriately, climate-change. During the discussions held in December 2018 on the occasion of the presentation of the conference papers centred on Lombroso, considerable time was devoted to discussing neo-Lombrosian trends surfacing over the last ten-fifteen years, and the aggressive use of the prefix “neuro” to indicate the radical programme of transformation of the human sciences thanks to the adoption of truly scientific methodologies derived from contemporary neurosciences: neuro-history, neuro-ethics, neuro-economy, neuro-justice, neuro-criminology, and so on. On the conference floor, Rafael Mandressi intervened on several of these labels and claims, and I will limit myself to invite readers to peruse his published contributions on the subject, offering the substance and the detail of his critical assessment11.

To the historian, the recent revival of neo-Lombrosian doctrines is at the same time fascinating and worrying. It is indeed fascinating to see how styles of “scientific” reasoning of the past are today accorded a new lease of life; and worrying for the lack of sophistication of the scientific claims and policy applications put forward. Over the last few hundred years, several “sciences” have been called upon to explain crime as the product of organic dysfunctions located somewhere in the human fabric – physiognomy, phrenology, craniology, genetics, endocrinology, and so on. We have – on the whole – abandoned physiognomy, phrenology and craniology, in the same way as no one does today believe that cranial capacity, and therefore brain size and weight, are the key to intelligence or behaviour. But many do today believe that a better understanding of neuronal functioning will at long last unlock – among others – the mystery of systemic anti-social behaviour.

The last and most popular representative of the trend appropriately labelled “neurocriminology” is undoubtedly Adrian Raine, author of The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime (2013)12. There is no space to engage in a discussion of Raine’s main thesis: in a nutshell, pet scans he undertook of 41 violent criminals compared to those of 41 “normal” individuals revealed almost imperceptible anomalies in the pre-frontal areas of the cortex – admittedly, at a fair distance from Lombroso’s “fossetta occipitale mediana”.

For both Lombroso and Raine, the bearers of anomalies are “organic” criminals for whom very little can be done but lock them away for good. Yet, it is clear that Lombroso and Raine-like commentators fail to precisely specify which violent crimes are they talking about – they simply and somewhat naively appear to believe that crimes are exclusively committed by bandits and killers, thieves and muggers who possess a disfunction that makes them to be what they are. Lock them up and all problem will be solved. A few years ago Raine declared in an interview that he would not hesitate to confine his own son to a special institution, if he spotted some of the congenital factors leading to violent crime13.

I will not engage in the scientific debate over neuronal activity in general, and neurocriminology in particular. Even though many extollers of the epiphanic virtues of the prefix “neuro” are not themselves neuroscientists, but selective and partisan readers of neuroscientific literature (preferably the popular one), I am not going to follow them in attempting to evaluate contemporary neuro-scientific advances. I am even prepared to concede, for the sake of argument, that some individuals may have predispositions to violence, because – let’s say – of an overproduction of adrenaline, or a peculiar wiring of the centres involved in the control of emotions. But this hardly constitutes an explanation for violent crime at large. Individuals thus affected are probably a minority of those committing violent crimes. The 41 individuals examined by Raine who showed the alleged anomalies, were they born with them? Several kinds of human actions do change neuronal networks and the mapping of their distribution over the human cortex, and neural plasticity is today a shared tenet among neuroscientists. Have more sophisticated and systematic investigations being attempted, let’s say, on authors of violent crimes who did behave reasonably well in later years? Have the pet-scans been repeated over the years? In view of the well known multiplicity of neuronal networks activated during any given conscious and unconscious action, is it really possible that violent actions, requiring the coordinated activity of several sensomotory, association and neurostransmitter systems throughout the brain, are controlled by a single area, and a very small one, at that? But, as I have stated above, I am not going to engage the “science”.

I have argued that individuals potentially wired to commit crimes are most probably a minority of those who engage in violence. Many known Nazi criminals died in their beds, as peaceful and law-abiding citizens, not to mention the numerous State officials who in several countries can kill or torture without ever been considered criminals. Equally, white-collar crimes are usually committed by a plurality of actors neuro-criminologists do not appear to care much about14. Phrenologists were on the contrary worried by them: the phrenological consultancy established in the 1860s in the Museum of Fowler and Wells, 753 Broadway, Ney York, was often used by employers, who needed to know whether a potential bank clerk, for instance, showed an anomalous growth of the area of the skull corresponding to the area of acquisitiveness in the brain – a sufficient reason not to employ him15.

Vues du « Musée phrénologique de Fowler et Wells », The New York Illustrated News, 18 février 1860 (1/2)
Vues du « Musée phrénologique de Fowler et Wells », The New York Illustrated News, 18 février 1860 (2/2)

Views of the ‘Phrenological Museum of Fowler and Wells’, The New York Illustrated News, February 18 1860.

P. Corsi (ed.), The Enchanted Loom. Chapters in the History of Neuroscience, Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 1991, p. 192

The criminals neo-Lombrosians are interested in are possibly responsible for a fraction of the crimes committed daily. Very much like their predecessors, Neo-Lombrosians are afraid of the violence of the urban poor, of minorities, of the savages hanging out downtown. To them, there are no social, cultural, identity issues involved in crime, but only constitutional malfunctions for which there is no remedy but perpetual incarceration or surveillance. It is not by chance that the United States have the largest prison population of the Western world, and that Afro-American youth have several times over the chance of being profiled, arrested, and detained than their white fellow citizens. Once again, as it was the case with racial theoretical disquisitions, it is not science that leads opinion, but opinion that leads science.

Deepening our understanding of Lombroso’s work and complex legacy is in my view very important, if not essential, in order to show how easy it is to embrace simplified views of human nature, and the nature of our societies and political arrangements, in the name of equally simplistic scientific views. As Carli has stressed, even in Lombroso’s times there were criminologists criticizing the biological reductionism of their Italian colleague. But more numerous, throughout the Western world, were those who considered that all human and social phenomena could be explained in terms of natural laws, as evinced from the geometrical study of human skulls or the mathematical and statistical evaluation of the phenomena of inheritance.

Needless to say, human and social phenomena are not providentially organized by supernatural powers or by totally chaotic processes. Yet, it is not the shape of the skull, the individual DNA or an image on a pet scan synthetizer that can provide the ultimate key to the understanding of extremely complex individual and collective behaviours. In fact, biological reductionism denies the complexity of biology itself, let alone of societies, and its supporters appear to opt for a monocausal explanation which was, and is, hardly scientific.

Highlighting Lombroso’s career and enormous impact over several decades, is an important contribution to understanding a period in European history which is still with us. We are living through the unsettling and dangerous consequences of the colonial and post colonial period. Racial theorizing and language is again on the rise, often supported by the Heads of powerful States, as are attempts at engaging in new forms of colonialism. The decades Lombroso lived in saw a massive production of “scientific” literature demonstrating the natural and inevitable foundations of racial, social, geopolitical hierarchies, providing the “irrefutable” evidence required to justify conquest and genocide.

Social conflicts were also included in the vast project of the search for a scientific explanation of human phenomena: colonial dictatorships and conflicts between the great Powers were paralleled by equally deadly confrontations on the home front. William Rathbone Greg (1809-1881), one of the founder of the Economist and a prolific contributor to contemporary high-brow periodicals, lamented in 1868 that charity and social aid (even the little that there was then) had weakened the action of natural selection within advanced societies: the population surplus should have been pruned by letting nature follow its course, whereas the élites should have received financial help by the State so that they could have more children16. Active or passive extermination policies appeared to be the right solution both for geopolitical and social conflicts.

The publication of Hereditary Genius (1869) by Francis Galton17, almost contemporary to Lombroso’s early works – a book still hailed in some quarters as a pioneering contribution to the scientific study of heredity – argued his case on the basis of rather hilarious assumptions: statistics proved that sons of high magistrates tended to become high magistrates. Galton would most surely have embraced the genetic determinism of intelligence extolled today by extreme right-wing “scientists” such as Richard Lynn (1930), who argued that the South of Italy is poor because the average IQ of its inhabitants is very low. Comparable only to the average IQ of the populations of many African countries18. In a nutshell, for Galton as for his contemporary epigones, if you are rich it is because you are intelligent, and if you are poor it is because you are stupid. Social and political analyses of inequality are declared to be unscientific and ultimately dangerous to society. Lombroso was indeed in good company, and rather benevolent moderate, at that, when compared to extremely popular right wing radical public intellectuals such as Arthur Gobineau (1816-1882), Gustave Le Bon (1841-1931), or Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1855-1927).

The Lombroso Museum is a wonderful example of how to preserve an important collection, and to fulfil at the same time an equally important educational function. Those clamouring for the closure of the Lombroso Museum, and those who persist in neglecting the collections of the Ethnographic Museum in Florence, fail to perceive the great relevance of memory supported by solid historical research to our present life in multiethnic and multicultural societies. Political and cultural calls for decolonization, and opposition to racism and to the naturalization of social inequalities and injustice, would greatly benefit from an understanding of that period of our recent history: powerful cultural discourses were then deployed to buttress and posit the inevitability of conflict and violent domination in the colonies and at home. It would be foolish to ignore this history at a time when several cultural and “scientific” components of an heritage many wish to overcome are supported by politicians and powerfully manipulated social media, and are making inroads into the public opinion of several Western nations. Our colleague Joe Cain, Professor of the History of Science at University College London, has promoted a petition to change the name of the Francis Galton Hall at his University, in view of the outspoken racism of the so-called “father of eugenics”. He has however strongly emphasized that: “UCL maintains The Galton Collection as a museum resource. It is unaffected by this proposal. The collection provides an invaluable tool for reflection and critical inquiry into the history of science and the history of relations between science and society. Through it, UCL furthers its equality agenda”19.

Away from Europe

As I hinted above, this final section, concerning the contributions by Irina Podgorny (the Museum of La Plata and the Pantheon Mapuche in Trenque Lauquen, Argentina), by Johannes Neurath (the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico), and by Alice Berthon (The National Museum of Ethnography, Osaka), will be shorter, for lack of competence on my part. The three important and innovative case studies do nevertheless force themselves even upon the non-specialist reader, who cannot but engage in drawing similarities and differences with respect to the narrative of the other essays. In the first place, in spite of the considerable difference in geographical and historical settings, all the case-studies indicate that the ethnographic and anthropological museums and collections under investigation ostensibly purported to represent the variety of cultures and ethnic groups that make up humanity or a nation. In fact, in several cases, the more or less explicit agenda questioned the right of given groups to be included in the common fold in the name of physical traits or the “level” of their civilization. Thus, the Mexican Museum as described by Neurath exhibited objects belonging to the Wixarika, a pre-Columbian population forever gone, the exhibition implicitly claimed, in spite of the solid evidence to the contrary provided by the Wixarika visiting the Museum to honour their gods; the Osaka Museum initially considered the autochthonous minority Ainu, mainly centred in the northern island of Hokkaido (better known to westerners for the Olympic games held in 1972 in its main city, Sapporo), as an ancient barbarous people that had nothing to do with the ethnic identity of Japan. Lombroso argued that “criminal men” constituted a group belonging to a former stage of civilization, if not indeed sharing key traits with animals – the savage beasts in our midst. Cipriani’s masks in Florence were intended to provide striking visual evidence as to the lower position several human populations occupied in the racial scale, thus reassuring contemporary Italians of their noble standing (at the time, a claim put in doubt by the Immigration Authorities of the United States, who questioned the pretence of Italians to be considered as “whites”).

The two Latin American Museums discussed in this issue do share, albeit with different outcomes, a very precarious origin. They were both established as signs of the modernity and national ambitions of the groups that advocated their creation. Means were however inferior to ambition. In the case of the Mexico Museum, Neurath appropriately refers to the recent study by Miruna Achim, From Idols to Antiquity: Forging the National Museum of Mexico (2018), where the far from linear and complex story of the first decades of existence of the museum are critically evaluated20. Achim’s study provides additional confirmation of the long-persisting tradition of the cabinet of curiosity. When describing the holdings of the early decades of the Museum’s life, Achim concluded:  “During this period, the Museum collected an array of taxonomically diverse things: pre-Conquest antiquities, colonial documents and paintings, mummies, shells, insects, fossils, silver ores, meteorites, engravings of the French imperial family and of US presidents, armours, stuffed animals – and some live ones as well. These all existed in such close proximity one with the other that one of the Museum’s early visitors exclaimed that the national collection was merely ‘a jumble of fragments’”21.


Podgorny’s caustic reconstruction of the events leading to the foundation of the Museum of La Plata, from its early life up to the recent competitive project of a Mapuche Pantheon in the town of Trenque Lauquen, explores the rather extraordinary set of less than transparent transactions that allowed Francisco Pascasio Moreno (1852-1919) to convince the authorities to buy his collection of specimens relating to the natural history and history of his region. As Podgorny has shown, the collection was only in part his own, and a substantial number of specimens lacked proper information concerning provenance, or even a label. Moreover, as contemporary critics pointed out, paleontological and human specimens were in fact an assembly of parts clearly belonging to different organisms or individuals. When a catalogue was compiled many years after the foundation, the fakes and the less than competent diagnostics acquired patrimonial objectification.

The Museum of La Plata surely constitutes a case in itself, albeit one that prompts several reflections. Whereas the Mexican Museum was started within the context of the post-colonial affirmation of the identity of a new nation (though means were far from adequate to the task), the La Plata institution saw the light due to a private if not dubious initiative. Regardless of the precarious epistemological and actual status of its contents, it was soon raised to the status of symbol of nationalistic pride. One might nevertheless see the La Plata Museum as a kind of performative institution, exercising its agency through the political and social rhetoric positing the reasons for its existence. A failure as far as Museums are concerned, the La Plata institution worked extremely well (in spite of everything) for Moreno, who built for himself the reputation of a forward-looking patriotic scientist, as Irina Podgorny has magisterially shown. After all, his name is known to all travellers and lovers of natural marvels, as the eponymous of the famous glacier on the tip of Tierra del Fuego. And, as Podgorny has communicated to me, he is still today a venerated figure, almost the prototype of the Argentinian patriotic scientist.

Pushing the argument to its limits, the ideological agency of museum institutions in colonial and post colonial settings, with their blatant performative functions, may paradoxically constitute a sort of benchmark for evaluating their European and Western models. If the reader is prepared to engage in a thought experiment, I would suggest that it is not the metropolitan models that are truly meaningful in their performative function, but the imitations in the colonies, or in locations where the colonial power had officially ended. The mimicry of metropolitan institutions flourishing in European capitals provided local elites the spur to establish their ethnic and therefore moral authority. It is where the form has no contents that the function of the form becomes prominent. To some extent, the contents are irrelevant, to the point that in the extreme case of the La Plata Museum a significant part of the collection was made up of fakes and specimens of unknown or dubious origin. Mantegazza was no Moreno, and surely did not exhibit fakes, but had precious little to show when his Museum opened in Florence – though he could indeed boast much valued relics of Captain Cook’s expedition. He bought on the market his state of the art collection of plaster masks (as the Berlin garden of marvels had done), and only slowly the Museum grew. Staff contributed new collections, allowing the new Italian élites to measure their reassuring belonging to the upper echelons of the human race. In La Plata, fossils made up of different animals, or specimens no one knew where they came from, remained part and parcel of the Museum, and their dubious status did not prevent visitors from admiring them. In the same way as the copies of the masks realized by Finsch were admired by visitors to the Museum in Florence, but also by crowds enjoying a day out at the Berlin Panopticon, alongside dwarfs, Siamese twins, and plaster models of deformed sexual organs.

Taking up one final time the theme of the long-lasting popular and cultivated attraction towards the exotic, the rare, the object-shrine, visitors did not appear to care much about the “truthfulness” of the objects exhibited. The fact that the masks were indeed copies, albeit “true” and certified ones, whereas the specimens sold by Moreno to the State were not, did not change their value as commodities to be exploited for personal, commercial, or broader ideological reasons.

With several kinds of Museums, the anthropological and the ethnographic ones in particular, the performative function and its rhetoric provided visitors with the conviction (better, the reified illusion) that the objects exhibited spoke for themselves. It was on the contrary the order of the institutional discourse that made them tell their story: the objects were mere mouthpieces rather than actors. Skulls had been exhibited for centuries in religious settings or to celebrate battles and victories, or even to preserve a meaningful relic of a prominent philosopher such as Descartes. But it was craniology that created skulls that “objectively” exhibited the hierarchy of cranial and therefore intellectual capacities among human groups. Experimental evidence to the contrary did not change the science nor the beliefs of the visitors. In today’s world, the scientific certainty of IQ measures and of the genetic roots of intelligence continue to be asserted and believed in spite of serious doubts on what is measured, and the actual meaning of the vague mental functions rather simplistically referred to.

A further, important theme connecting some of the essays, is the question of the human remains exhibited, rising complex juridical, moral, and political problems. It is to be pointed out that one of the merits of the thematic issue under review is to stress the multiplicity of local variability. By looking at Italy, or to Latin American and Japanese cases, the reader is invited to move away from traditional concentration on French, British or North American examples. The question of the restitution of human remains has been central to the Italian debate on the proposal to suppress the Lombroso Museum. In 1870 Lombroso studied the skull of Giuseppe Villella (1802-1864), a “brigand” who had died in Pavia six years previously. When the Museum opened in 2009, the town of Motta Santa Lucia, Villella’s birthplace, started a court procedure to vindicate the right to repatriate the remains of their local hero: not a brigand, but a freedom fighter against the colonial troops from Piedmont. In 2012 the courts decided that the skull could stay in the Museum22.

Without repeating what Montaldo and Carli have written in their contributions, it is obvious that the litigation – whatever its merit – concerned the “true” skull of a “true” individual (even though doubts have been raised on this point). Yet, whether skulls or remains really belonged to the individuals singled out in the reclamation procedures is at time almost irrelevant. In the case of the La Plata Museum, skulls declared to belong to indigenous heroes on the most improbable evidential basis, are today being reclaimed by the town of Trenque Lauquen in order to place them in the Mapuche Pantheon. Local politicians and entrepreneurs do not need to convince their fellow citizens that it is their duty to repatriate and honour their leader fallen on the battlefield. Once again, it is the ideological and political assumptions that determine the “objectivity” and reliability of the specimens to be exhibited.

The Mexico Museum and the Ethnographic Museum in Osaka may finally be paired for a note of happy ending, so to speak. In the case of Japan, Berton has rightly questioned the claim by the founders of the Museum to embrace a radical post-colonial posture. The claim is objectively complementary to the very popular Japanese negationist movement, according to which the country was never involved in any episode of colonial domination – and a rather ferocious one indeed. Only very recently, and belatedly, the Japanese government has “regretted” the Rape of Nanjing (13-19 December 1937).

In spite of the claim by the Museum personnel to have implemented a very innovative, free-flow, multicentric museography, I personally find the claim slightly exaggerated. But I can only judge from the pictures available online and the illustrations provided by our colleague. Vitrines and reconstitutions of house interiors and living scenes also appear rather traditional and no different from what one sees in the Florence Museum or in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. But this is an impression based on photographs. Noteworthy is however the fact I already alluded to, that the Ainu ethnic minority is finally winning its battle for recognition – they are not extinct, they do not belong to the ancient past of the archipelago, and recently the Japanese Parliament has fully recognized their status as autochthonous inhabitants of their Island and of Japan.

Even more striking is the success of the Wixarika, the autochthonous Mexican population described by Neurath. Artefacts belonging to their tradition and culture were exhibited, as it was the case with the Ainu material in Japan, as relics of the past. And yet, the ordering of the world provided by the Wixarika religion conferred sanctity to the cult objects now become museum specimens, subjected to the ordering of the ethnographic discourse displayed by the curators. The Wixarika do however believe that their gods have selected the Museum as their abode: the dead relics of an ancient cult have become, for the living Wixarika, expressions of the divine. A divine that is by far superior to the pretence of the museum curators, who have not realized that it is the gods who decided to become Museum objects, not them. Human resilience could not find a more consoling example.

Pietro Corsi

Unfold notes and references
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See the classic study by Giuseppe Olmi, L'inventario del mondo: Catalogazione della natura e luoghi del sapere nella prima età moderna, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1992. Images can be enjoyed in high definition on « Il Teatro della natura di Ulisse Aldrovandi » [on line] .

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Textbooks to teach undergraduates in geology how to draw fossils are still in print, see for instance: E. W. Nield, Drawing & Understanding Fossils. A Theoretical and Practical Guide for Beginners with Self-assessment, Oxford, Pergamon Press, 1987.

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« The Electrical Girl. Strange Phenomena of Repulsion and Attraction », The Athenaeum, 957, 28 Février 1846, p. 230.The article reported the summoning by the Parisian Académie des sciences of a high-power Committee to investigate the case, chaired by François Arago.

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Pierre Denys de Montfort, Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, des mollusque. Ouvrage faisant suite aux Œuvres de Leclerc de Buffon, et partie du cours complet d’Histoire naturelle rédigée par C.S. Sonnini, 5 vols, Paris, 1801-1805, vol. 2, 1802, p. 386-402. On Sonnini and the Sonnini edition of Buffon, see: Pietro Corsi, Lamarck. Genèse et enjeux du transformisme 1770–1830, Paris, CNRS Éditions, 2001.

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See, for instance, Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, « Nain d’Illyrie », Gazette médicale de Paris, 2d série, 4, 1836, p. 600. Saint-Hilaire also informed the public that the dwarf on display spoke five languages ;, « Jumeaux siamois arrivés à Paris », Gazette médicale de Paris, 2d série, 3, 1 décembre 1835, p. 796. See also : Irina Podgorny, « L’inquiétante étrangeté des musées ambulants et des collections d’anatomie populaire du XIXe siècle », in P. González Bernaldo, L. Hilaire-Pérez, Les Savoirs-mondes. Mobilités et circulation des savoirs depuis le Moyen Âge, Rennes, PUR, 2015, p. 99-107.

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Sandra Puccini, Andare lontano. Viaggi ed etnografia nel secondo Ottocento, Roma, Carocci, 1999.

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Felice Giordano, a mining engineer and close friend of the scientist and politician Quintino Sella, had been posted to Sicily in 1860. He insisted with Sella that a far-away colony could have been a remedy to the mafia problem, by shipping there all suspects (P. Corsi, “Felice Giordano”, in Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, 55, 2001, p. 264-266).

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Hilary Howes, “Between wealth and poverty: Otto Finsch on Mabuyag, 1881”, in I. J. McNiven, G. Hitchcock (dir.), Goemulgaw Lagal, Cultural and Natural Histories of the Island of Mabuyag, Torres Strait, special issue of Memoirs of the Queensland Museum – Culture, 8, 2015, p. 221-251, esp. p. 236.

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Paul Broca, “Instructions générales pour les recherches et observations anthropologiques (anatomie et physiologie)”, Mémoires de la Société d’Anthropologie de Paris, 2, 1865, p. 69–204.

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Otto Finsch, Anthropologische Ergebnisse einer Reise in der Südsee und dem malayischen Archipel in den Jahren 1879-1882: beschreibender Catalog der auf dieser Reise gesammelten Gesichtsmasken von Völkertypen, Berlin, Asher 1884. The catalogue was quickly translated into English. Significantly, the last part of the German title became the selling point of the English language version: Masks of Faces of Races of Men from the South Sea Islands and the Malay Archipelago, taken from Living Originals in the Years 1879-82, Rochester, NY, Ward’s Natural Sciences Establishment, 1888.

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Hilary Howes, “‘It is Not So!’ Otto Finsch, Expectations and Encounters in the Pacific, 1865-85”, Historical Records of Australian Science, 22, 2011, p. 44. Howes (p. 51, n. 100) refers to the relevant secondary sources.

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Rafael Mandressi, “Le temps profond et le temps perdu. Usages des neurosciences et des sciences cognitives en histoire”, Revue d’histoire des sciences humaines, no 25, 2011, p. 165-202; Id., “L’historien, le cerveau et l’ivresse des profondeurs”, Tracés. Revue des sciences humaines, no 14, 2014, p. 113-126, a poignant review of Daniel L. Small, On Deep History and the Brain (University of California Press, 2007).

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Adrian Raine, The Anatomy of Violence. The Biological Roots of Crime, New York, Pantheon Books, 2013.

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Clint Witchalls, “Are we born to be bad?”, The Independent, 29 May 2013 [on line]: “If someone said my kid had a 50 per cent chance of becoming a violent offender, I’d act”, says Raine. “I’d have to. A 50 per cent chance of ruining his life, my life, his brother’s life, the victim’s life. For me, I feel it would be irresponsible for me not to do anything, to say, I’m going to take my chances, even if it was a residential programme for two years, even if it was a potentially stigmatising programme.” Tim Adams, “How to Spot a muderer’s brains”, The Guardian, 12 May 2013 [on line].

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Neil Fligstein, Alexander F. Roehrkasse, “The Causes of Fraud in the Financial Crisis of 2007 to 2009: Evidence from the Mortgage-Backed Securities Industry”, American Sociological Review, 81, 2016, p. 617-643, p. 621: referring to predisposition to crime, and to Raine’s studies among others, the author sensibly point out that “Such findings provide compelling insights into individual cases. But unless coupled with strong theories about professional selection or learning and diffusion, they are unable to explain crimes that require complex coordination among multiple actors, a hallmark of major financial malfeasance.”

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Lorenzo (1811-1896) and Orson Squire Olson (1809-1887) opened their phrenological establishment in 1835, at 138 Nassau Street. Samuel Robert Wells (1820-1875) joined the partnership and the premises moved to Broadway.

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William Rathbone Greg, ”On the Failure of Natural Selection in the Case of Man”, Fraser’s Magazine, 78, 1868, p. 353-362.

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Francis Galton, Hereditary Genius, an Inquiry into its Law and Consequences, London, Macmillan, 1869 [on line].

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Richard Lynn, “In Italy, north–south differences in IQ predict differences in income, education, infant mortality, stature, and literacy”, Intelligence, 38, 2010, p. 93-100; Richard Lynn, Tatu Vanhanen, IQ and the Wealth of Nations, Praeger, Wesport, CT, 2002. On April 14, 2018, the University of Ulster has revoked the status of Emeritus Professor to Richard Lynn, also in view of interviews he released to neo-nazi journals and literature in Germany and the UK.

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J. Cain to UCL Estates Management Committee, 14 October 2014 [on line]. On the establishment of a Committee on the History of Eugenics at University College London, on December 8, 2018, see also:

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Miruna Achim, From Idols to Antiquity: Forging the National Museum of Mexico, Lincoln and London, University of Nebraska Press, 2018. See also Miruna Achim, “The National Museum of Mexico: The Trial Years, 1825-1867”, Museum History Journal, 9, 2016, p. 13-28.

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For an account of the court proceedings, see Maria Teresa Milicia, « La guerra del cranio, il museo Lombroso e il coraggio della verità », Micromega, 7 June 2017 [on line]. Very recently, in June 2019, the sentence of the Court of Cassation has recognized the full legitimacy of the Lombroso Museum to own its anatomical collection. But this has not put an end to the controversies. See Silvano Montaldo, “En finir avec Cesare Lombroso ?” in this issue.