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Disciplines of Collection: Founding the Dresden Museum for Zoology, Anthropology and Ethnology in Imperial Germany


I explore three different themes in the history of science through the lens of the museum: 1) science and the public; 2) science and empire; 3) material and visual culture. The book is an institutional history of a provincial museum with international aspirations to standardize museum management and anthropological practice. The founding director of the Dresden Museum for Zoology, Anthropology and Ethnography proposed an historical, non-essentialist approach to understanding racial and cultural difference because of his commitment to extensive field research, Darwinian evolution, and experimentation with techniques of visual representation. Director A. B. Meyer (1840-1911) identified the widely practiced science of craniometry as defined by technologies of exoticization that actively erased the historical, cultural and social details that human remains carried with them. He developed new methods that emphasized intimate familiarity with variety within any one ethnic group, from skull shape to material ornamentation, as integral to the new disciplines of physical and cultural anthropology. This approach to the anthropological sciences pitted the Dresden scholars against the dominant ahistorical methods and anti-Darwinian beliefs of the German Society of Anthropology, Ethnology and Pre-history. Internationally, this historical understanding of individual cultures attracted the attention of Filipino nationalists and numerous US research institutions.

I build on the work of other historians of modern German science who have pointed out that we must look beyond the power of the university-state model and consider the role of other cultural factors to understand the place and power of science in nineteenth-century German culture. I also address the current debate in the history of the German anthropological sciences regarding the disciplines’ relationship to racism and colonialism. In order to expand our understanding of the complex development of these sciences, I emphasize the importance of visual approaches to historical scholarship.

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