21 January 2021

Race Science, Physical Anthropology & the Ethnographic Museum

CONVERSATION | 21 Jan 2021 | 17:00 - 19:00 CET | Zoom Online

If our first four conversations in the series A Future Where Racism Has No Place -What Can Museums Do? have focused on the potential (or lack thereof) of institutions to work in an antiracist manner, then our next conversation more directly confronts the history of race, racial science and its institutional embedding. For this conversation we have invited Amade M’charek, Subhadra Das and Ageliki Lefkaditou. 

Despite a longstanding consensus that race is not real, that it is a social construction, race-thinking holds a stubborn persistence on our imagination today. And as we know, racism continues to have devastating effects on those who have to bear its brunt. Even if long discredited, popularly repeated myths continue to circulate about racial difference as fact. And, as journalist and author Angela Saini reminds us, this is not just limited to everyday life, but also in the “long reach of race science” where “even well-intentioned, politically neutral researchers […] can't help but resort to race when thinking about human difference.”

It was only this past June 2020 that University College London renamed two lecture theaters and a building, as a means to grapple with the fraught history of Francis Galton. Galton “coined the term ‘eugenics’ in 1883, and endowed the university with his personal collection and archive.”[1].  Such reckonings happen alongside the development of other, arguably less controversial scientific projects, such as the Human Genome Diversity Project, which also have to deal with the legacy of racial paradigms; or, the contested discussions within academic circles about the influence of race in the history of science. Why does race have such a stubborn lore, and what is the role of racial science in this intransigence?

It is not coincidental that we at the National Museum of World Cultures should address this topic. The Tropenmuseum, one of the museums that falls under the NMVW, was originally part of the Colonial Institute, which, for over a half-of-a-century promulgated the now-debunked science of race through the collecting and study of human remains in its physical anthropology department. And moreover, race-thinking has always shadowed the representational practices of this kind of museum.

During this conversation, together, we want to explore what role museums, but also other institutions with histories in the study of race, have played in creating and propagating ideas around race. How is racial thinking structurally embedded in museum practice? And, perhaps, most importantly, which specific strategies can the museum implement to move us all towards antiracist futures? 

Image: Chemical laboratory of the Colonial Institute's Trade Museum Department, 1926-1940, C.A. Schouten. TM-10035983

How to join

We will host this event online.

To join via ZOOM WEBINAR, please register in advance for this webinar.

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.

Please note that we will only open the Q&A on Zoom. Based on time, we cannot promise to address all of the questions, but we shall do our best. 

Amade M’charek

Amade M’charek is Professor of Anthropology of Science at the department of Anthropology of the University of Amsterdam. Her research interests are in forensics, forensic anthropology and race, with a particular focus on the social aspects of various biomedical technologies and practices, such as human genetic diversity, diversity in medical practice, and forensic genetics. Her most recent research RaceFaceID is on face making and race making in forensic identification (funded by a five-year ERC consolidator grant), where she is the PI, working together with a team of 5 PhDs and 2 post-docs. The primary research aim of the RaceFaceID project is to develop methods and theoretical concepts with which to understand the simultaneous presence and absence of race in science and society. By taking into account biological factors, this research project will go beyond the social constructivist paradigm and unravel the ways in which ‘race’ is shaped as a set of relations between the biological, the social and the technical.   

Amade M’charek is also the PI of the project Dutchness in Genes and Genealogy, a project examining how Dutchness is enacted in collaborations between population geneticists, archaeologists and genealogists. She is furthermore the PI of the project Sexuality & Diversity in the Making. She is the founding chair of the European Network for the Social Studies of Forensics (EUnetSSF) and the convener of the seminar series  Ir/relevance of Race in Science and Society.


Subhadra Das

Subhadra Das is a writer, historian, broadcaster, comedian and museum curator at UCL Culture where she works with the UCL Pathology and Science Collections. She regularly talks to diverse audiences in classes, seminars, lectures, public talks and stand-up comedy about all aspects of her work from collections management to working with human remains. Her main area of research is the history of science and medicine in the 19th and 20th Centuries, specifically the history of eugenics and scientific racism. She uses museum objects to tell decolonial stories in engaging and affirming ways. 


Ageliki Lefkaditou

Ageliki Lefkaditou has written about the history of physical anthropology and its interconnections with race, racism, eugenics, nationalism and colonialism. She has worked as a senior curator at the Norwegian Museum of Science and Technology in Oslo and has been the lead curator for the award-winning exhibition “FOLK – From Racial Types to DNA sequences”. She currently works with nature filmmaking exploring climate and biodiversity crisis. Ageliki is a committed antiracist and environmental activist.