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The Berlin Ethnological Museum is one of the world's largest and most important anthropological museums, housing more than a half million objects collected from around the globe. In Humboldt's Shadow tells the story of the German scientists and adventurers who, inspired by Alexander von Humboldt's inclusive vision of the world, traveled the earth in pursuit of a total history of humanity. It also details the fate of their museum, which they hoped would be a scientists' workshop, a place where a unitary history of humanity might emerge.
H. Glenn Penny shows how these early German ethnologists assembled vast ethnographic collections to facilitate their study of the multiplicity of humanity, not to confirm emerging racist theories of human difference. He traces how Adolf Bastian filled the Berlin museum in an effort to preserve the records of human diversity, yet how he and his supporters were swept up by the imperialist currents of the day and struck a series of Faustian bargains to ensure the growth of their collections. Penny describes how influential administrators such as Wilhelm von Bode demanded that the museum be transformed into a hall for public displays, and how Humboldt's inspiring ideals were ultimately betrayed by politics and personal ambition.
In Humboldt's Shadow: A Tragic History of German Ethnology (Princeton UP, 2021) calls on museums to embrace anew Bastian's vision while deepening their engagement with indigenous peoples concerning the provenance and stewardship of these collections.
Adam Bobeck is a PhD candidate in Cultural Anthropology at the University of Leipzig. His PhD is entitled “Object-Oriented Azadari: Shi’i Muslim Rituals and Ontology”. For more about his work, see www.adambobeck.com.
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