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Museums of Knowledge and Streams of Consciousness

By Cedric J. Robinson[1]

“The islands of the Santa Barbara group, on which it is proposed to plant the savage children of the boundless plains for reservation and reform, are eight in number…So you see there is ample territory in which to conduct the experiment of civilizing our predecessor race off the face of the earth.”

— The Daily Press (Santa Barbara) Nov. 27, 1878

During my investigations into race sciences and racial discourses, I was struck recently by the naïveté of many of us who began these searches in the wake of the liberation struggles of the 1960s.  We lacked the experiences of earlier anti-racialists who would loom large in both the imagined racial constructs and in later efforts to debunk them: Roger Casement, George Washington Williams, Franz Boas, and George Sanchez,  Casement’s radicalism drew on his indoctrination into the brutal necessities of colonialism; Williams’ outrage emerged from his immersion into the U.S. Army; Boas had been exposed to the most eminent anthropologists and ethnological institutions in America before challenging their racial premises; and Sanchez’s career as an education bureaucrat inspired his dismissal of the scientism of race science.[2]

Most of us who resumed this work in the 1970s lacked the “benefits” of comparable experience.  Rather, we labored under a miscomprehension as to the intentionality of the racialist agenda, not unlike the belief that anti-Semitism was a thing of the past. We failed to understand the calculated deliberateness of racialism, its massive apparatus with awesome resources employed to construct a culture of racialism in our societies.  Racialism was not merely a stream of consciousness, culturally transmitted from generation to generation, nor simply group psychology.  It was and is not principally a correlate of under-education and popular ignorance.  It was, indeed,  administered, managed, and subsidized.

I am employing the notion of the museum both in a historical and metaphorical sense.  As Tony Bennett has shown in The Birth of the Museum (1995), the modern museum movement began in the late 18th century.  Aram Yengoyan maintains that “collecting prior to 1700 or 1750 meant a heterotopia of virtually everything…[but the] early eighteenth-century museums were concerned with creating order out of chaos…as a means of creating posterity which could never be defied or dismissed by foreign powers.”[3] Moreover, Bennett noted that museums were meant to “serve as instruments of public instruction….“[4]

This “museum idea” of radical social reform and public education encompassed public libraries, art-galleries, parks, halls, public clocks, etc.  Bennett observes that in England: “In the nineteenth century…the most ardent advocates of public museums, free libraries, and the like typically spoke of them in connection with courts, prisons, poorhouses, and, more mundanely, the provision of public sanitation and fresh water.”[5]

In England, museums and their associated phenomena were the province of Parliament and local authorities.  When transferred to the young American republic in the 19th century, their control rested with Congress and its institutions of knowledge, e.g. the Smithsonian, the National Museum (USNM), Bureau of American Ethnology.

By the second half of the 19th century, the Smithsonian, the National Museum and the Bureau of American Ethnology these institutions were collaborating in a much more audacious project: the world’s fairs of 1876, 1893, and then, 1904.  Philadelphia celebrated the 100th anniversary of Declaration of Independence;  Chicago staged the event marking the 400 years since Columbus’ voyage; and the St. Louis exposition celebrated the century following the Louisiana Purchase. In each of these, race instruction was embedded into the national curriculum.

The Philadelphia Indian display (in the 19th century, native American referred to Europeans born in the U.S.) organized by the Smithsonian produced an effect which Robert Rydell characterizes as that of “unassimilable savages.”  William Dean Howells, then editor of the Atlantic Monthly, was even less charitable: “The red man, as he appears in effigy and in the photograph in this collection, is a hideous demon, whose malign traits can hardly inspire any emotion softer than abhorrence.”[6]  Fortunately, Blacks were less prominently represented, but the use of “plantation darkies” who served as entertainment at one restaurant were sufficient to leave their imprint on Joaquin Miller’s “Song of the Centennial:” “A new and black brother, half troubador/ A stray piece of midnight comes grinning on deck.”[7]  Thus, one can surmise, the nearly 10 million visitors to the Philadelphia Centenary came away duly impressed with the new national catechism.

Seventeen years later, at Chicago, the attendance nearly trebled to 27 ½ million.  And Otis Mason, the Smithsonian’s lead man in the fair’s race science thought it achieved “a vast anthropological revelation.”  The architects of Department M where the anthropological exhibits were designed had come from the Smithsonian, the BAE, the USNM, Harvard and Chicago universities, many of them trained by Louis Agassiz of Harvard.  And along with Boas, Mason, and G. Brown Goode (director of the USNM), they included the most prominent race scientists of the period. Chicago’s most prominent businessmen and financiers had raised the $15 million subsidy for the fair (supplemented by $2.5 million from the federal treasury).[8]

The fair was organized along a simple binary: the White City represented the cultural, technological and scientific achievements of “modern civilization” while the Midway Plaisance displayed “a sliding scale of humanity,” as one observer put it.   Arranged, it appears, by color the “living exhibits” consisted of villages of Germans, Hungarians, Chinese, Japanese, Bedouins, Egyptians, American Indians (Dakota Sioux, Apache, Navajos, etc.), South Sea Islanders, and Javanese.  And at the site furthest from the White City were the sixty-nine Dahomeans, “in all their barbaric ugliness, blacker than buried midnight and as degraded as the animals which prowl the jungles of their dark land.”[9]

The Midway was a mélange of tacky entertainment (Ferris Wheel, camel drivers, donkey boys, dancing girls, etc.) and anthropology.  Frederic Ward Putnam, director of Harvard’s Peabody Museum and the central figure in requisitioning and designing Indian exhibits, had promised that his displays would avoid “degrading or derogatory character.”  Whatever his intentions or his sensibilities he operated under the mandate of Mason to produce “a chain of human progress along racial lines.”[10]  A century later, Robert Rydell would conclude that “With Wounded Knee only three years removed, the Indians were regarded as apocalyptic threats to the values embodied in the White City…” But the opinion of someone much closer to Department M seems persuasive:

Emma Sickles, one of Putnam’s staff members, raised the only objection to the treatment of Indians that was heard throughout the duration of the exposition, and she was summarily dismissed from her position. In a letter to the New York Times, she charged that every effort had been made to use the Indian exhibits to mislead the American people.[11]

A final legacy was the Pledge of Allegiance penned by Francis Bellamy as part of the dedication ceremonies for the 1893 Fair.

In 1904, the Anthropology Department of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition staged the next display of racial hierarchy.  Nearly 20 million attended the spectacle.  Unlike the fairs at Philadelphia and Chicago, no Little Big Horns or Wounded Knees had occurred in sufficiently close proximity to influence the Indian exhibits.  However, the U.S. now occupied the former Spanish colonies in the Pacific and the Caribbean.  Accordingly, W. J. McGee, the former head of the BAE, stocked “the most extensive Anthropology Department of any world’s fair” with human samples which paraded American power and illustrated his four cultural grades: savagery, barbarism, civilization, and enlightenment.

Groups of pygmies from Africa, “Patagonian giants” from Argentina, Ainu aborigines from Japan, and Kwakiutl Indians from Vancouver Island, as well as groups of Native Americans gathered around prominent Indian chiefs including Geronimo, Chief Joseph, and Quanah Parker, were formed into living ethnological exhibits. They were supplemented by an adjoining United States government exhibit of nearly one thousand Filipinos and by separate ethnological concessions…McGee assembled the nonwhites directly under his charge into a “logical arrangement” [i.e. savagery, barbarism] of living “types” stretched out between the Indian School Building and the Philippines display.[12]

Boas, now of Columbia University, and Ales Hrdlicka, head of the USNM assisted in the organization of the anthropometric laboratories which administered tests of endurance, and a battery of psychological and other measurements.  Frederick Starr, professor of anthropology at Chicago set up a three-week course on the fair for credit.  And the Smithsonian received an added (but expected) bonus: three brains of Filipinos who died while at the fair became part of its collection.

The instigators of this race discourse were drawn from the highest tiers of American commerce, science, and government.  And the spectacles that they designed were replicated and multiplied through museums, scientific journals, newspapers, magazines, amusement parks (see present-day Disney Land), circuses, film, popular cartoons, children’s toys (puzzles, toy banks, etc.), curios, postcards, and advertisements for cereal, fruit companies, shoe polish, toothpaste, etc.  Under such a cultural and intellectual regime it became possible to occupy the Philippines, Haiti, Cuba, the Hawaiian Islands, and Puerto Rico employing the rationale of tutelage.  Under such a regime, immigration restrictions could be leveled against inferior Europeans and Asians while the Carnegie and Kellogg foundations funded the Eugenics Records Office and Race Betterment Congresses.

Boas began his recantation of race science in 1906, two years after his involvement in St. Louis.  His work over the next 13 years was marginalized; and he himself was publicly censured in 1919.  Boas’ crime, according to the American Anthropological Association was that his opposition to World War I was anti-American, and his refutation of race anthropology was anti-scientific.[13]  His most prominent critics were based at Harvard, the National Research Council, and the Galton Society.  Now bereft of any significant funding support, Boas immersed himself in the study of Black folklore, training many of cultural anthropologists (Melville Herskovits, Ruth Benedict, Zora Neale Hurston, Irene Diggs, etc.) whose works were rediscovered in the 1970s.

As I mentioned, we were largely unaware of the behemoth of race.  None of this history was a part of the undergraduate curriculum in anthropology at Berkeley in the 1960s.  And since much of the work cited was published at its earliest in the mid-1970s, I suspect few of my professors had any but the vaguest notion about the origins of their discipline in race science.  It fell on my own and subsequent generations of scholars to unearth this history of the museum of knowledge.  This work today is still in its infancy.  It is a daunting task, made more difficult by the sparseness of our numbers at universities.  Along with the most important research we can produce, we must, therefore, strive to attract brilliant and courageous students.  They will require both qualities to meet the challenges of the museum of knowledge.


Cedric J. Robinson taught political theory and Black Studies at UC Santa Barbara for over 3 decades. His works include Terms of Order, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition; Black Movements in America; Forgeries of Memory and Meaning; An Anthropology of Marxism, and most recently, Cedric J Robinson on Racial Capitalism, Black Internationalism and Cultures of Resistance (2019, Pluto Press).


[1]* From the Cedric J. Robinson Papers (© 12.2.1999). We thank Elizabeth Robinson for making this lecture available to the Praxis Center Blog.

[2] For Casement, see Michael Taussig, Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man (Chicago: Chicago University Press) 1986; for Williams, see Cedric J. Robinson, “Ota Benga’s Flight through Geronimo’s Eyes: Tales of Science and Multiculturalism,” in T. Goldberg, ed., Multiculturalism (New York: Blackwell) 1984; for Boas, see Lee Baker, From Savage to Negro (Berkeley: University of California) 1998; and for Sanchez, Robert Guthrie, Even the Rat Was White (New York: Harper & Row) 1976.

[3] Aram Yengoyan, “Universalism and Utopianism,” Comparative Study of Society and History, 39, 4, October 1997, 794.

[4] Tony Bennett, “The Multiplication of Culture’s Utility,” Critical Inquiry, 21, Summer 1995, 863-4.

[5] Ibid., 865.

[6] Robert Rydell, All the World’s a Fair (Chicago: Chicago University) 1987, 26-7.

[7] Ibid., 29.

[8] Ibid., 42-3.

[9] Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, October, 1893

[10] Robert Rydell, All the World’s a Fair (Chicago: Chicago University) 1987, 63 and 60.

[11] Ibid., 63

[12] Ibid., 163

[13] Lee D. Baker, op.cit., 148-50.

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