The history of anthropology comes in all shapes and texts.
Museum collections, field notes, academic journals, and archival correspondence are easy to count as traditional sources for piecing together the history of the discipline. But a most unexpected text that captures the intersection of art, science, and anthropology comes from a 1970 issue of the children’s comic book, Treasure Chest of Fun & Fact.
In the 1930s, the Chicago Field Museum established a series of new anthropology and archaeology exhibits. In addition to opening the Hall of the Stone Age of the Old World in 1933, the Field Museum commissioned a different kind of exhibit – a set of bronzes illustrating The Races of Man. The museum hired celebrated sculptor Malvina Hoffman to travel the world in order to sculpt a “type” of each “race.”
The museum saw this exhibit as a way of combining art and science and The Races of Man was pitched as an exhibit that would resonate with public audiences. For her sculptures, Hoffman traveled everywhere from the American Southwest to Central Asia to the Pacific Islands to South Africa and her trip garnered quite a bit of media interest. Not only did Hoffman have impressive art credentials – having studied under Auguste Rodin in Paris – she was no stranger to the society pages where her bohemian parties drew mention from time to time.
Her bronze sculptures generated enormous interest in the Field Museum and the exhibit received very positive reviews from both the scientific community of the 1930s as well as distinctive note in popular circles. Famed anatomist Sir Arthur Keith praised Hoffman’s sculpture – himself a scientific consultant for the project – and celebrity actress Mary Pickford was photographed with the bronzes in 1933, when the sculptures were in New York City.
The exhibit opened 6 June 1933 with 104 sculptures of 102 “races.”
(The anthropological, problematic notions of “race” and “category” that motivated the commission of Hoffman’s bronzes are a bit beyond the scope of this post. There is a plethora of brilliant literature that engages with these questions such as Constructing Race: The Science of Bodies and Cultures in American Anthropology by Tracy Teslow or Race, Racism, and Antiracism: UNESCO and the Politics of Presenting Science to Postwar Public by Michelle Brattain. The Races of Man exhibit has since been disaggregated and many of the bronzes are in storage.)
Museum displays are a series of tradeoffs. They are a balance of art and science; story and narrative; information and experience. And they’re even a tradeoff in artistic medium. In her memoir, Heads and Tales, Hoffman describes her decision to create the exhibit in bronze (rather than a more traditional museum medium plaster) and why she felt that something as static as bronze conveyed more to her audience.
The very name over the entrance to most of the halls – “Anthropology” – evokes in our minds dummies of sawdust of painted plaster with staring glass eyes and dusty false hair which has become partially unglued because – “there is never enough money for upkeep.”
You…also have to understand that the president and the trustees of the Field Museum in Chicago are a very alert and courageous group of men. To keep abreast of the times, they decided, after investigating the reasons why the anthropology halls in all countries were generally empty and the snake and monkey houses were always crowded, to step out of tradition and take a long chance.
They [the trustees of the Field Museum] felt that “The Races of Man” should look alive, and be actual figures and heads that any one could recognize and feel to be authentic.
Her artistic decisions – bringing the sculptures “to life” – meant that the sculptures had decades-long staying power as evidenced by a 1970 issue of Treasure Chest a popular mid-century children’s comic book. In “Artist in Bronze and Stone: The Life of Malvina Hoffman” author Rita G. Brady sketched a miniature biography of Malvina Hoffman and how her life, her art, and her experiences creating the Field Museum bronzes.
Offering a children’s version of the history of the exhibit thirty-plus years after its installment provides a unique historical context for public engagement and anthropological encounter through the Field Museum.
 Malvina Hoffman, Heads and Tales, Later Printing edition (Scribner’s, 1936), pp. 3.