Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Michael A. Osborne reviews Alice Conklin’s In the Museum of Man

Alice Conklin. In the Museum of Man: Race, Anthropology, and Empire in France, 1850-1950. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2013. 392 pp. Paperback $26.95.

Reviewed by Michael A. Osborne

In the Museum of Man combines institutional, intellectual and cultural history to untangle Parisian debates about ethnology and trace the history of its professionalization in interwar France.  Conklin asks how the socio-cultural activity of ethnology was distinguished from earlier anthropological traditions, particularly the physical anthropology of Paul Broca, long associated with biological essentialism. The book concludes with the 1950 UNESCO statement that race is "less biological fact than social myth."  Conklin's treatment of the middle ground negotiated between these two poles of thought is nuanced, although it is worth  remembering that Broca's science was initially a big tent pulling together the study of human artifacts, habits, and language as well as osteological evidence.  That said, anthropometry and the comparative study of skulls remained privileged in his style of anthropology, a museum-based activity akin to Georges Cuvier's science of comparative anatomy.      

The narrative pivots on the stabilization of ethnographic methods, inclusive of historical sociology, interview techniques, the comparative study of religions and languages, and the growing importance of field research.  Biographies of  Paul Rivet and his mentor, Ernest-Théodore Hamy, are insightful, as is the story of Georges Henri Rivière, a colorful personage and master fund raiser who became the first director of the Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires. The author presents an ethnography of her actors, resulting in detailed narrative often presented in terms of correspondence networks.  In addition to reviewing the founding and transformation of several Parisian institutions, including the Musée d'Ethnographie du Trocadéro and its successor institution, the Musée de l'Homme, the book examines the careers of Rivet, Marcel Mauss, and several of their students. Mauss did not do field work, but he saw it as a necessity for those who followed him.  The book brings Mauss out from the shadows cast by two intellectual giants who bracketed his life; his uncle, the sociologist Émile Durkheim, and the apostle of structural anthropology Claude Lévi-Strauss.  Conklin refreshingly takes museology and visual culture seriously, and conducts readers on a tour of the Musée d' Ethnographie prior to its expansion and transformation set to coincide with the 1937 Paris World's Fair. We also learn  how museum curatorial activities complemented pedagogical actives shouldered mainly by Mauss and Rivet.  

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries witnessed a proliferation of what came to be termed the colonial sciences, mainly medicine, hygiene, agronomy, and the like.  Logically, ethnography could have been one of those and perhaps assisted the French in managing colonial labor. Ethnography, however, sat on the margins of empire, although colonial budgets supported mission-driven activities and the colonies provided arenas for those missions. Such was the case with the Dakar-Djibouti mission of 1931-1933, whose scale paled in comparison to the massive state-sponsored missions  to Egypt and  Algeria.  Yet Mauss and Rivet used colonial connections and funding to build the discipline, and Mauss even chided a student not to criticize French colonialism in his thesis. Both men worried about the  politicization of their emergent science.  These fears were realized under a Vichy government which murdered or interned many of Mauss and Rivet's students, and was quick to support the brand of anti-Semitic racial science proffered by the Swiss-born George Montandon, an anthropologist and Nazi collaborator keen on modernizing the dated theories of Joseph-Arthur Gobineau.

This book is thoughtful, well-researched, and grounded in the hard work of archival sleuthing. It also tells us much about how French ethnologists constructed and presented race, and how they were able to moderate the force of, though not entirely reject, anatomical and biological essentialisms by evaluating these essentialisms against statistics, the study of languages, religions, and diverse cultural artifacts.  It is one story, and a specifically Parisian one distanced from the military and medical contexts of the study of the races of man common throughout the empire.