Alas, Poor Qisuk-Digging Up a Museum’s Past

Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity , by David Hurst Thomas. Basic Books, 326 pages, $25.

A Gathering of Wonders: Behind the Scenes at the American Museum of Natural History , by Joseph Wallace. St. Martin’s Press, 288 pages, $24.95.

Museums are theft.

We are most recently reminded of this elementary fact by the controversy over the Augsburg Municipal Art Museum in Bavaria. Its collection of Baroque masterpieces was assembled by the infamous Karl Haberstock, Hitler’s favorite art pimp, who prized paintings from Holocaust victims while other Nazi thugs were pulling out their fillings. Three salons of purloined art in the Schaetzle Palace now glorify the philanthropy of the “Haberstock Foundation.” After a storm of protest from the World Jewish Congress, curators have removed their benefactor’s noble bust from the entrance. Otherwise the museum refuses continuing requests to open its archives or acknowledge the sinister provenance of its treasures.

Yet we should not feel too smug about our own marble trophy cases of empire. From a Native American perspective, our national flagship museums of ethnography–Manhattan’s American Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian, the Field (in Chicago) and the Peabody (at Harvard University)–are little more than charnel houses built by grave robbers whose deprecations we continue to celebrate as heroic feats of exploration and science. The Augsburg museum, at least, only exhibits stolen Jewish art, not the original owners’ heads; our great halls of science, by contrast, jealously hoard the remains (pickled brains especially) of thousands of Native Americans as well as their looted culture. And before Haberstock, there was Robert E. Peary.

Peary, as everyone knows, achieved the North Pole in 1909–but only with the aid of the Thule Inuhuit of Northwest Greenland (the so-called Polar Eskimos, sometimes also called Inuit.) The Thule people, who were particularly fond of Peary’s Inuhuit-speaking companion, the remarkable African-American explorer Matthew Henson, provided the decisive margin of ecological knowledge and survival skill for a goal that most of them considered absurd. They routinely saved the lives of Peary and the arrogant Eastern Establishment sportsmen he brought to the high Arctic.

Peary repaid their friendship by fleecing them of furs and ivory, looting the graves of their ancestors and stealing the great Cape York Meteorite (“Alnighito”) that was the centerpiece of their religion. What did not disappear into the explorer’s pocket ended up in the permanent collection of the Museum of Natural History, whose president, Morris K. Jesup, financed Peary’s later expeditions. When Franz Boas, the assistant museum curator who would become the towering figure in American anthropology, wanted Inuhuit “research material” to study at close-hand, Peary was happy to oblige.

As David Hurst Thomas tells the story in Skull Wars , six adventurous people from Smith Sound, including Peary’s friend, the hunter Qisuk and his 6-year-old son Minik, were induced to sail away to the white paradise called New York. Unaware that they were mere museum exhibits, they arrived in Brooklyn along with their sacred meteorite in September 1897. “‘The Peary Eskimos,’ as they were sometimes called, became instant celebrities. During their first two days in town, some 30,000 New Yorkers paid 25 cents each to view them aboard the Hope.”

The Inuhuit were exhaustively measured, examined and described by the museum anthropologists. Within eight months, four of them were dead of tuberculosis. An adult survivor eventually returned to Greenland (where he was scorned for his unbelievable tales of the big city), while the orphaned Minik remained behind under the guardianship of museum superintendent William Wallace. When he was 15, Minik discovered that Wallace and Boas had elaborately faked his father’s funeral–Qisuk’s bones were actually stored in museum trays. Minik was understandably appalled.

“Boas,” Mr. Thomas writes, “defended their actions, suggesting that the fake burial was conducted to appease the boy, and to keep him from discovering that his father’s body had been chopped up and the bones placed in the collection of the institution.”

One of Boas’ young researchers won acclaim for an illustrated article on Qisuk’s brain. Despite press complaints that the remains belonged to Minik, the museum refused to relinquish its valuable “specimen.”

Mr. Thomas, who holds Franz Boas’ old position as the Museum of Natural History’s curator of anthropology, provides a truly horrific account of the frenzied competition between museums to acquire comprehensive collections of the crania of “primitive” and vanishing peoples. Phrenology–that constitutive obsession of the age of Emerson–continued as “skull science” well into the era of the Model T. After Indian massacres ceased to supply decapitated specimens, museum agents systematically looted native cemeteries and sacred burial sites.

Boas, whose later research famously debunked scientific racism, was an incorrigible headhunter in his early days. “Discouraged at his inability to become associated with any of the established natural history museums, Boas … [built up] a personal Northwest Coast Indian skull collection as a speculative business venture. He described himself as ‘just like a merchant,’ who was hoping that a carefully documented collection, at the going rate of $5 for a skull and $20 for a complete skeleton, might return ‘a tidy profit’–as well as finally open the door to a permanent curatorship.”

Hired by the Museum of Natural History in 1895, Boas was sent west in a race with Field Museum curators to acquire choice Indian collectibles, above all human remains. The New York-Chicago rivalry elevated the craft of Burke and Hare to unprecedented heights: In the Pacific Northwest, for example, “local missionaries were complaining that skull and artifact collectors had destroyed almost every grave in the Virago Sound and North Island area. They were shocked by the men ‘who however laudable their object [sic], could so mercilessly ride roughshod over the susceptibilities of the Indians.'”

Mr. Thomas recounts this shameful history in order to show why so many Native Americans understandably recoil from the word “science.” Using the recent controversy over “Kennewick Man”–the 9,500-year-old skeleton from the Columbia River that some anthropologists have incautiously described as “Caucasoid”–as allegory for 200 years of scientific aggression against indigenous identity, he argues that contemporary Indian intransigence about history has been largely shaped by the hubris and ghoulish exploits of the great men of science whose statues adorn our museums.

Having toured the American Museum of Natural History’s secret collections with David Thomas, it is hard to have much patience with A Gathering of Wonders , Joseph Wallace’s breathless Festschrift to the museum’s curators, past and present. “What wonderful role models these men and women were!” Mr. Wallace writes. “Fred Chapman risking his life to save Florida’s beautiful herons and egrets from the depredations of hunters. Roy Chapman Andrews facing the harsh conditions of the Gobi Desert with unfailing aplomb, even joy, and bringing back some of the most exciting fossils ever found.” Franz Boas embarks on “a race against time,” and Mr. Wallace cheers him on, praising his “enthusiasm and sense of urgency.” Boas performs “risky, expensive, and difficult fieldwork”–but Mr. Wallace doesn’t dwell on the nature of the “artifacts” thereby collected.

Published under special dispensation from its Department of Licensing, Retail and Special Publishing, this is the museum beaming at itself in a mirror. It is useful, I suppose, as a popular overview of some of the museum’s enduring scientific interests and accomplishments, but no more honest than a history of modern Germany with the 1930’s and 1940’s left out. At least, I assume, that’s how the Inuhuit would see it.

Mike Davis is the author of City of Quartz.