The Historical Journal

Research Article

ROBERT GORDON LATHAM, DISPLAYED PEOPLES, AND THE NATURAL HISTORY OF RACE, 1854–1866*

SADIAH QURESHIa1 c1

a1 University of Cambridge

ABSTRACT

In 1854, the Crystal Palace reopened at Sydenham. Significantly, it featured a court of natural history. Curated by the philologist and physician, Robert Gordon Latham, it was designed to provide the public with an ethnological education. Understanding Latham's project is of particular importance for broader understandings of the scientific importance of displayed peoples and mid-nineteenth-century debates on the nature of human variation. Recent scholarship has shown considerable interest in the relationship between exhibitions of foreign peoples and anthropology, particularly within the context of world fairs. Nevertheless, anthropologists are routinely claimed to have used fairs merely to display or publicly validate, rather than to make, scientific knowledge. Meanwhile, the 1850s and 1860s are often seen as having witnessed the emergence of a new ‘harder-edged’ scientific racism as, older, elastic definitions of ‘race’ were successfully overthrown by one rooted in biological difference (most commonly exemplified by the anatomist Robert Knox). By examining how Latham produced and used his museum of human types, this article proposes an alternative approach. It suggests that displayed peoples were used as ethnological specimens and that Latham's work is at a particularly significant crossroads for the mid-nineteenth-century remaking of ‘race’.

(Online publication January 31 2011)

Correspondence:

c1 Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Free School Lane, Cambridge, CB2 3RH sq203@cam.ac.uk

* I am thankful to Jim Secord, Simon Schaffer, Peter Mandler, Sujit Sivasundaram, Elizabeth Edwards, Nick Jardine, Felix Driver, Anne Secord, Billie Melman, the Cambridge Victorian Studies Group, and two anonymous referees for their helpful advice and suggestions on this research in all its various guises. Efram Sera-Shriar and Kate Nichols deserve particular thanks for their helpful feedback and for allowing me access to unpublished material. All images are courtesy of Kevin Levell and Jim Secord.