From the Desks of Curtis Hinsley and David Wilcox: A Confrontation of Understanding

The following contribution is from Curtis M. Hinsley and David R. Wilcox, editors of Coming of Age in Chicago: The 1893 World’s Fair and the Coalescence of American Anthropology (Nebraska, 2016). Hinsley is Regents’ Professor Emeritus of History and Comparative Cultural Studies at Northern Arizona University. Wilcox is the former head of the anthropology department at the Museum of Northern Arizona and continues to be an adjunct professor at Northern Arizona University.

Last week, Edward Rothstein, cultural critic for the Wall Street Journal, enthusiastically reviewed a new exhibit at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. “All the World is Here: Harvard’s Peabody Museum & the Invention of American Anthropology,” which marks the Museum’s 150th anniversary, is both a celebration and examination of the roots of American anthropology in the Harvard museum and at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. As Rothstein notes, curator Frederic Ward Putnam was the key to the museum-exposition conjunction, since he not only served as director of the Peabody for thirty-five years but also masterminded the remarkable—and sometimes controversial—anthropological exhibits at an exposition attended by 27 million people. The Fair’s collections subsequently formed the nucleus of today’s Field Museum on the lakefront in Chicago.

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The Chicago Fair, as we argue in Coming of Age in Chicago: The 1893 World’s Fair and the Coalescence of American Anthropology (Nebraska, 2016), was in several critical respects the crucible of the modern discipline of anthropology in the United States. It not only introduced for the first time a wide range of both living and material/artifactual exhibits of “exotic” American cultures and groups to a wide swath of the American public; it also provided the occasion to gather together virtually the entire cohort of American workers in what would become the various branches of modern anthropology. What had been an inchoate and thinly organized community came away from Chicago with new impulse, institutional possibilities, and even philanthropic support.

Almost twenty years ago we began gathering the evidence and, with other scholars, writing the narratives of this remarkable event of Gilded Age America and its impact on public attitudes toward so-called “exotic peoples” at the very moment of American entry as a power player on the world stage. The development of our volume of essays and documents was a slow process because we were determined that we wanted the book to function as a dialogue between that past and our present—a confrontation of understanding through images and words. By looking at the trajectory of American anthropology before, during and after the 1893 Fair, and detailing how the objectives of its early leaders resulted in a conjunction of goals that played out in the Fair’s multiple anthropological initiatives, we show how they were able to attract a large audience to their messages, and how anthropology in the early twentieth century became a viable, exciting focus in museum displays and academic programs.

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As the current Harvard Peabody Museum exhibit richly reflects, the 1893 World’s Fair (one of twenty-two such expositions in America between 1890 and 1910) produced a massive textual and visual record—hundreds of souvenir photo books, tens of thousands of photos, drawings, cartoons, and rich descriptive passages in multiple genres. At the center of our study are long selections from a diary kept during the Fair by anthropologist Frank Hamilton Cushing, who recorded not only the weather and his own physical and psychological states, but his interactions with a remarkable range of scientists and Chicago businessmen, their enthusiasms, peculiarities and jealousies. From this inner anthropological circle we worked outward to the exhibition practices, treatment of the “exotic” peoples on display, and the sometimes serious and sometimes wry and puzzled reception of this new social science. Like the fairgoers of that time we strolled, more than a century later, through the crowded Anthropology Building or up and down the chaotic Midway Plaisance—like the young American couple in the hand-tinted engraving by Swedish artist Thur de Thulstrup that graces the cover of Coming of Age in Chicago—and, not incidentally, stands near the entrance of the new Peabody exhibit. For many visitors of that time, “All the World” was indeed there. In coming years, American anthropology at places like the Peabody Museum at Harvard would effectively deepen and broaden public attention to its important moral and scientific messages about how to view that human diversity.