Racism, Natural History, and Fiction

September 7, 2017 | 3 books mentioned 15 10 min read

The natural history museum is a buffet of symbolism that writers of fiction find it difficult to resist: shelves upon shelves of animals, rocks, and plants are primed for metaphor, while the gruesome behind-the-scenes drama of pickling, skinning, and other acts of specimen preparation provide copious fodder for allegory. It should come as no surprise then that writers are mining the displays for material, and that the public is enthusiastic about the results. Anthony Doerr’s mega-hit novel All The Light We Cannot See, published in 2014, owed much of its charm to the young Marie-Laure, who follows her locksmith father to work everyday at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. There she wanders the halls learning about mollusks, geodes, and fossils before losing her eyesight to cataracts shortly before the start of World War II. Suddenly the boon of bringing a blind child to a natural history museum everyday becomes clear: with her father “continually placing some unexpected thing into her hands: a lightbulb, a fossilized fish, a flamingo feather,” Marie-Laure’s other senses grow stronger until she is capable of navigating through the museum, and then her Parisian neighborhood, completely blind.

All The Light is one of two books published recently in which the natural history museum plays a crucial role in the characters’ developing identity. The other, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, allots only 20 pages to the natural history museum, but it nonetheless plays a pivotal and altogether different role; Whitehead’s natural history museum is embedded with political messages about the dark past of natural history itself. Both books made The New York Times bestseller list, meaning both reached a large audience with their very different messages about the role of natural history in fiction: one inviting the natural history museum into the discourse of the novel, skeletons and all, and the other allowing natural history to remain as so much window dressing, despite copious evidence of its role in perpetuating the violence at the heart of the novel.

The oldest, most venerable institutions devoted to studying natural history have long histories of exploiting human subjects in the name of knowledge; the same museum in Paris where Marie-Laure learns about mollusks was the site of Georges Cuvier’s hypersexualized examination and dissection of Saartjie Baartman (also known as the “Hottentot Venus”) roughly a century prior. In the United States, natural history museums have been instrumental in constructing the narrative of an upstart country with copious natural resources poorly defended and cared for by indigenous tribes—resources that were only properly named, catalogued, and displayed upon the arrival of Europeans. One highly publicized story from the turn of the century—natural history’s boom years— involved Minik, an Inuit boy, who was nine years old when he and his father, Kishu, were delivered to the American Museum of Natural History by arctic explorer Robert S. Peary in 1901. Minik’s father soon died of tuberculosis after living sequestered in the museum’s attic, and curators lost no time in dissecting and preparing Kishu like a specimen, going so far as staging a fake funeral to dupe Minik into thinking they had buried his father with traditional Inuit rites on museum grounds. In reality, the museum kept his bones and, the story goes, young Minik stumbled upon his father’s skeleton mounted in a display case.

Baartman and Minik are just two of the more notorious instances of natural history museums exploiting indigenous people and people of color in the name of science, to say nothing of the hundreds upon thousands of nameless bones that have traveled the world in the satchels of grave robbers cum physical anthropologists. Such histories are latent within every literary natural history museum, whether or not the author consciously engages with them.

In The Underground Railroad, Whitehead confronts the racism of the 19th-century natural history museum head on, and uses it to make a point about the African-American subject in the popular American imagination. Cora, who’s living in a South Carolina boarding house for black women after escaping enslavement on a Georgia plantation, is recommended for employment in the Museum of Natural Wonders by her house proctor (an institution apparently imagined by Whitehead as an amalgam of various 19th-century natural history museums) because she has “adapted” better than her housemates. But Cora isn’t wanted at the museum for her manual labor, as she assumes, but as a “type” to be employed by Mr. Fields, the curator of “Living History.” As a living exhibit, Cora pantomimes an imagined version of her history for a white public in three dioramas: “Scenes from Darkest Africa,” “Life on the Slave Ship,” and “Typical Day on the Plantation.” For hours at a time she plays her part, sometimes across from white mannequins (the white people on display are always dummies, never real people) while museum-goers file past. Having lived the horrors of a plantation while in bondage, Cora questions Mr. Fields on the inaccuracies of his exhibit:

Mr. Fields did concede that spinning wheels were not often used outdoors, at the foot of a slave’s cabin, but countered that while authenticity was their watchword, the dimensions of the room forced certain concessions. Would that he could fit an entire field of cotton in the display and had the budget for a dozen actors to work it. One day perhaps.

Mr. Fields’s use of the word “actors” is an interesting shift away from “types,” one that indicates an attempt to rephrase Cora’s job description as one of pure theater. But Mr. Fields cannot shed the discourse of the natural history museum so easily, as day after day Cora endures the “white monsters on the other side of the exhibit […] pushing their greasy snouts against the window, sneering and hooting.” The white public, for whom the exhibit is intended, observes Cora as a specimen, which, despite her signs of life, shares more in common with the taxidermied animals and mannequins from “plaster, wire, and paint” than a living person with emotions. Mr. Fields’s employment of black women as living exhibits, coupled with the lack of white types, indicates clearly to Cora, the white public, and the reader that black specimens are to be observed without the veneer of human dignity or respectability, even outside the museum’s walls. Indeed, the logic went, because curators saw African-Americans as more “natural,” and therefore closer to mankind’s shared animal relatives, they were more deserving of display within a natural history museum.

Whitehead’s Museum of Natural Wonders may have been imagined, but Mr. Fields’s practice of displaying people was not. Human zoos were popular sites at World’s Fairs throughout the later half of the 19th century and well into the 1900s, often meant to demonstrate to the public the supposedly uncivilized nature of indigenous and non-white people. Humanity’s position within the pantheon of natural history museum displays has long been fractured along racial lines. Museums are largely products of colonialism and European cultures that sought to dominate “exotic” cultures by harvesting archeological treasures and human remains for the edification and amusement of the general white public. Throughout the late 1800s and early 20th century, eugenics masqueraded under physical anthropology as figures like Aleš Hrdlička erected exhibits of human remains to demonstrate the separation of the races at the American Museum of Natural History and the San Diego Museum of Man.

Whitehead makes the connection explicit; while working at the Museum of Natural Wonders, Cora learns that white doctors are making sterilization mandatory for black women with intellectual disabilities or more than two children. This kind of bodily control is enabled by the politics of display inside the natural history museum, a logic that allowed white doctors and curators to dehumanize the black subject to the point of denying them autonomy over their own reproduction.

Consider the moment when Mr. Fields “gives his types a proper tour of the museum.” As she’s shown around the different exhibits, Cora occupies the position of the white public looking at dioramas depicting scenes from American history: Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock, the Boston Tea Party, and the supposedly peaceful seizure of indigenous lands. Cora comes to her own conclusions about the history these exhibits portray: “Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood.” It’s a moment of the black subject functioning as both critical museumgoer and “type” specimen; the living exhibit returning the gaze and critiquing. Cora’s position does not allow her to be behave as a passive observer like the white visitors; having been categorized by Mr. Fields as a member of the collection herself, she has a far more personal stake in the interpretation of said collection. Her taxonomy becomes one of “how are these things positioned in relation to me, and what does it say about my selfhood?” Yet despite all this, Cora’s is never allowed behind a microscope or to give any input on her own display.

For Doerr’s Marie-Laure, it would seem the natural history museum’s politics of display are irrelevant; in fact by the end of Doerr’s novel she has gained considerable agency over the natural history museum’s holdings she once wandered about blindly. Marie-Laure returns to Paris after the war to work in the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, where she establishes her own laboratory to study mollusks. Doerr informs us that she has published monographs on “the evolutionary rationale for the folds in the West African cancellate nutmeg shells” and an “oft-cited paper on the sexual dimorphism of Caribbean volutes.” Marie-Laure is given authority over an entire subset of African mollusks by virtue of the many hours she has been able to devote to the study of the creatures over her career—a career only made possible by many long hours spent in laboratories and traveling to collect specimens, both activities that Cora, as a “type” whose value only registers within the confines of the museum exhibit, is unable to participate in.

Much separates the experiences of Marie-Laure and Cora within their respective museums, not least of which is a roughly 80-year period during which many of the more grisly activities of natural history museums were curtailed and swept under the rug (although grave robbing remained in good health). Anthropologists have for awhile made their names in softer ways: Franz Boas, who often paid Hrdlička for the skulls he brought back from the southwest and Latin America, gradually moved away from seeking out racial logic in physical anthropology, becoming more interested in the customs and traditions of different cultures. Today, many anthropologists look to philosophy and the social sciences for their conclusions, like Donna Haraway, whose The Cyborg Handbook points out the many ways in which humans and technology are both “natural.” But this is not a comparison of ‘”had it worse,” Cora or Marie-Laure. Rather, I want to examine the choices these writers made in depicting the natural history museum, and how this impacts the message behind both novels.

coverTake, for example, the treatment of Charles Darwin in All The Light. When the Nazis swoop in and occupy the French town of Saint-Malo, Marie-Laure and her great uncle endure de facto home imprisonment inside his chateau. To pass the time they recite passages from Voyage of the Beaglethe variety of species among the jumping spiders appears almost infinite”—and act out exchanges with Darwin himself, whom Maire-Laure loves to imagine “at night, leaning over the ship’s rail to stare into bioluminescent waves, watching the tracks of penguins marked by fiery green wakes.” It’s a whimsical picture of a naturalist at work, understandably appealing to a child under stress, but one that curiously overlooks the connections between Adolf Hitler’s drive toward racial purity and the mission of many early naturalists and natural history museums. It’s no secret, for example, that the Nazis found inspiration in American eugenics of the sort that permitted Cora’s encounter with forced sterilization; even the eye color charts used by the Nazis can be traced to charts displaying the separation of the races in the American Museum of Natural History’s Darwin Hall in a 1926 exhibit curated by Hrdlička for the International Congress of Eugenics.

If Doerr intends to draw this connection between natural history, eugenics, and Nazism, it’s ultimately smothered by the overwhelming sentimentality of the novel’s dependence on the natural history museum’s role in preserving Marie-Laure’s sense of wonder at the world. Doerr’s description of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, in which “fossilized dinosaur femurs” sit across the hall from “two-hundred-year-old herbarium sheets bedecked with orchids and daisies and herbs” and “a meteorite on a pedestal […] as ancient as the solar system itself,” sounds strangely similar to Mr. Fields “holding forth on the cross-sections of pumpkins and the life rings of venerable white oaks, the cracked-open geodes with their purple crystals like glass teeth, the tiny beetles and ants the scientists had preserved with a special compound.” Both descriptions collapse time and space and generally confirm the view of the natural history museum as infinite, a place where all corners of the universe, from the depths of the ocean to deep underground, can be intimately known. The natural history museum reduced to a grocery list of specimens to be plucked off the shelf abdicates all responsibility for horrors committed in its name; if just anyone can come along and make their own selection from the vast collections, then it’s no fault of the museum and the curators and anthropologists who built the institutions if those selections are used to fatal ends. But natural history is not just a grab bag; it’s not neutral, and it’s important that in fiction it not be allowed to become a playground where white people, characters, and authors can retreat into an allegorical fantasy land, as it has functioned in real life for hundreds of years with extreme consequences.

Museums of all kinds play their specific role in constructing the broader understanding of the human subject by housing, displaying, and labeling the residue of humanity in a delicate hierarchy. You’ll never find a Jackson Pollock exhibited alongside a woolly mammoth skeleton, just like you rarely find indigenous beadwork or sculpture in the main halls of the Louvre or MOMA, even though they are equally products of humanity’s ingenuity. We assume that anthropologists and curators are more sensitive now regarding framing and positioning, but as I write this, there are articles being published in The New York Times in which scientists are quoted saying that a recent hominid fossil discovery has the face of “somebody you could come across in the Metro.”

Interestingly, Whitehead writes that “the stuffed coyotes on their stands did not lie, Cora supposed. And the anthills and the rocks told the truth of themselves. But the white exhibits contained as many inaccuracies and contradictions as Cora’s three habitats.” Cora backs away from a sweeping statement about the the discipline of natural history in general, even though it’s highly suspect that even a taxidermied coyote, after being killed, skinned, preserved, stuffed, and displayed, has not acquiesced to the great white lie of American domination of nature.

It’s Cora’s grandmother, Ajarry, who in the early pages of the novel sounds a more complex note:

She knew that the white man’s scientists peered beneath things to understand how they worked. The movement of the stars across the night, the cooperation of humors in the blood. The temperature requirements for a healthy cotton harvest. Ajarry made a science of her own black body and accumulated observations. Each thing had a value and as the value changed, everything else changed also. A broken calabash was worth less than one that held its water, a hook that kept its catfish more prized than one that relinquished its bait. In America the quirk was that people were things.

Ajarry comes to her own conclusion, both philosophical and material, that people and nature occupy a muddy space together, but for different reasons than Hrdlička or Darwin. Ajarry’s perspective is born of watching the white man’s scientists carry out their experiments on her very body, the same as they would on cotton and cows. It’s an embodied knowledge born from the experience of being treated as chattel and object, and it’s a perspective that natural history museums, and the books about them, would be wise to explore further.

Callum Angus is the author of the story collection A Natural History of Transition, and managing editor of smoke and mold. He lives in Portland, Ore.


  1. The phrase “the white man’s scientists” is very telling of both Whitehead’s and Angus’s misinterpretation of the empirical mindset. Scientists don’t see race, Whitehead and Angus do. Some people just see “race” and “racism” literally everywhere; that’s their right, of course, their perspective, but most people, of all races, simply are not that biased or far-left-wing or radical or agenda-driven.

    Other than the political bent and the above-mentioned misinterpretation, this was a very clever pairing of texts via their interactions with natural history museums. Both Doerr and Whitehead are talented crossover writers. Yes, some might call them sentimental or merely “literary with a lowercase L,” a problem that often pursues bestseller writers (Nick Hornby, Tom Perrotta), but I find both Colson and Anthony to be insightful contemporary authors with a wealth of interests – Doerr’s love of science and Whitehead’s non-fiction book on poker, to give but two examples. I just wish Angus would tamp down the politics. It’s almost as if she thinks taking children to museums to show them the wonders of humanity is some sort of conspiracy scheme or whitewashing of history.

    That’s a terribly cynical view of the world. I spend a lot of time in museums with my children and we see the same exact smiles of awe and wonder on the faces of black children and white children, children born in America and children born on foreign shores, boys and girls. A tyrannosaurus rex or a velociraptor is proof that bigotry and prejudice are small-minded and silly. Kids aren’t naturally racist, adults make them that way. Natural history museums and art museums alike are great places to showcase and encourage the liberal virtues of equality, tolerance, and education.

    Although, for my money, to say that tribal bead-work and a Jackson Pollock “are equally products of humanity’s ingenuity” is a little short-sighted and lacking in an appreciation of Art History. One is culturally relevant, one is the work of individual genius (almost any member of that society could do the bead-work, it’s the equivalent of the shawl I knit last week, just with the passage of a lot of time; there was only one Jackson Pollock).

  2. @ Unadorned

    I’m there with about half of your message but, re:

    “Although, for my money, to say that tribal bead-work and a Jackson Pollock “are equally products of humanity’s ingenuity” is a little short-sighted and lacking in an appreciation of Art History. One is culturally relevant, one is the work of individual genius”

    That’s far from an objectively-stable determination, though, isn’t it? And isn’t that the crux of the Culture War Quibbles? The high-cultural affirmative action that elevates Pollock’s blobs and squiggles to the empyrean while relegating, say, Romare Beardon or Alice Neel to a spot rather closer to the bead-work, is purely subjective, and rather self-serving of the gate-keepers, who are, coincidentally, closer to Pollock, demographically, than to Beardon or Neel.

    In my not-entirely-uninformed opinion, for example, Kara Walker’s work stands several stair steps higher than Pollock’s, conceptually and on the level of technique. Pollock’s primary talent, (for me), is in his ability to come up with mystifyingly evocative titles. And will Rothko’s reputation, for example, stand the test of time? Will Lichtenstein’s? Not, IMO, against a plurality of considered opinions. Maybe the canon ideally remains era-contingent… forever?

    Why not a sort of a culturally rejuvenating compromise in which we integrate the conversation at the level of the gate-keepers, for a change? Because: who are these un-elected, often self-appointed legislators of the canon? And why do we expect school children to take the finality of Their wholly subjective opinions for granted…? Because They’re well-to-do White males of a certain age? Well, you can see the problem with that…

  3. Hello Steven :)

    Of course I can see the problem with a rote re-establishment of time-honored traditions or a “greatest hits”-izing of the arts. And while I consider Kara Walker one of America’s greatest living artists, Pollock is a figure that looms large for a reason (whatever our individual opinions of his merits).

    For an example where I think I am more in line with your position on Jackson, I absolutely prefer Walker’s work to Warhol’s, but there’s no way I would say that if you were teaching a course on the history of American art in the last hundred years, that I would privilege Kara’s work over Andy’s. His contribution, his objective contribution (influence, innovation, and “reach”) not just to the art world but to the sociology of fame, representation, and the synthesis of highbrow/lowbrow culture, is almost immeasurably vast (even if none of his individual works strikes me as being on the level as the best of Walker; or Hockney, or Rauschenberg, or McLachlan).

    Stable determinations should be questioned and interrogated. Yes! I agree! I just think the singular quality of a truly unique and once-in-a-lifetime individual contributor needs to acknowledged. Some people (in the visual arts, in literature, and in literary theory and art criticism) really move a whole discipline forward, they flip the whole discussion on its head and singlehandedly change the flow of discourse in their field — and they move it forward (in a “progressive” way) A LOT. Regardless of whether he “does it for you” or not, Jackson Pollock is one of those figures.

    Thanks for commenting, though. You seem to have a protean presence on this particular website.

  4. Unadorned!

    “You seem to have a protean presence on this particular website.”

    Never let the trivial binaries trap you, I say.

    “[Warhol’s] contribution, his objective contribution (influence, innovation, and “reach”) not just to the art world but to the sociology of fame, representation, and the synthesis of highbrow/lowbrow culture, is almost immeasurably vast..”

    Vast and deadly, yes! Laugh. The oil-and-water of Mammon-meets-Art makes for sticky characters. Koons, Hirst, Sherman, Emin, Beecroft, Klein… yecch. What we need is a “Jesus-and-the-money-changers-in-the-temple” moment for the Arts… secular edition, of course.

  5. Why do you think we need such a moment, Steven? Yes, the individuals you highlight make a lot of money and get some flashbulbs, but intelligent and in-the-know art-world people are far more likely to talk about Agnes Martin or James Turrell, Alexander Calder or Christian Marclay, Richard Serra or Mike Kelley, Gerhardt Richter or Francesca Woodman. The people who are discussed and written about and who marinate the steaks of the kids at the academies (both universities [Art History] and art schools [practitioners]) are far more likely to have a long tail than Koons’s balloon dogs, Damien Hirst’s vitrines, or Tracey Emin’s sneers and cleavage.

  6. Unadorned!

    Many of those long tails are attached to equally meretricious and/or ephemeral doggies (the affable Mike Kelley! the visionary decorator Alexander Calder !), I think. The genuinely shamanic potentiality of the public practise of Art is largely over-painted by the investment portfolio and Social Status Ponzi Scheme… and the Mythos Bourse (aka Pissing in Peggy’s Fireplace). And, again: I think we need to dissect the presets of the gate-keepers. But this is not the thread to hash it out.

    Thanks for the fine-tuned chat!

  7. Do you guys really understand what the other is saying? Or is this, ‘Look at me and my ability to use impossibly arcane references?’

    And, what ever happened to Thomas Kincade?

  8. I thought we (Steven and I) understood each other fine.

    I don’t think either of our references were arcane at all. If you follow art in even the most basic way (like, you read The New Yorker or you look in the collections of really popular mainstream art museums), I’m pretty sure all the names we used would be very familiar. Richter or Emin are slightly less famous, but far from obscure.

    Oh, and Thomas Kinkade died a very rich man. His work was very popular. His book world equivalent would be Mary Higgins Clark or someone like that, a highly prolific best-seller writer.

  9. @Unadorned and Kirk

    The irony is that I totally understood Unadorned but I found that poorly-constructed sentence by Kirk (“Do you guys really understand what the other is saying?”) mystifying! Laugh

  10. You can sniff out a bad sentence like a bloodhound but can’t recognize sarcasm (Kincade reference). I thought I followed the art world to some degree, but “Pissing in Peggy’s Fireplace” ? Maybe not so much.

  11. Kirk

    “You can sniff out a bad sentence like a bloodhound but can’t recognize sarcasm”

    A) Sarcasm (which requires framing-clues) is difficult to detect on the Internet; B) you are conflating two comments/ commenters; C) the Peggy Guggenheim reference was a wink written for Unadorned (with whom I was communicating) and while it doesn’t matter if everyone got it, I’m sure quite a few did. It’s not a sin to *not know something* but it’s a ridiculous tradition of the Internet for commenter-1 to chastise commenter-2 for knowing something commenter-1 doesn’t.

    How all of this relates to the original post: Museums, the fallibility of (self-serving) gatekeepers and the myth of evolution/progress in The Arts. Oh, and: the recognizably-human tendency of Hierarchy-designers to put themselves near or at the top of the Hierarchies they’ve designed.

  12. So, for the record, Steven, you see no progress/evolution in the arts? Come on, you’re part of the art world (you at least follow it), do you really think the scene is as white-moneyed as it used to be? I agree that people on the progressive/inclusionist left pat themselves on the back re: their political POV far too often. But the game is absolutely less rigged than it used to be (thought still rigged). A desire for a perfect/utopian goal is fine, but let’s at least acknowledge the baby steps that’ve been made, no?

  13. Unadorned!

    I think we mean “progress” differently; I don’t mean anything having to do with the “inclusivity” or PC niceness of modern gallerists/ museums. My Peggy/Pollock diss, upthread, has to do with my feeling that Pollock is/was a gatekeeper’s fad (and the fad only endures, along with the Rothko fad, et al, because after investing so much money/reflected prestige in acquiring a fad, who’s going to support an objectively merciless downward reappraisal of the acquisitions? )

    But, to get specific regarding a Pollock vs Beadwork (and the gatekeeping, possibly ethnocentric, magic that hierarchizes them):

    The fallacy, in my opinion, is in the subconscious attempt to draw parallels between Progress in Science (with its slow march towards Systems That Work and away from Systems That Don’t Work) and “Progress in the Arts”, which is a misnomer at best and often a flat out oxymoron, since no objective taxonomy exists to support any notion that the Lascaux Caves, for example, are Aesthetically Inferior to an eighth-grader’s doodle incorporating the rules of Renaissance Perspective. Who among us would prefer a Pollock, even, to the Lascaux caves? (I know there are some, of course, but my rhetorical question asks if there are really 20,000 years of “progress” separating the two).

    I’m reminded of that old tenet in High School Philosophy/ Comparative Religion: Monotheism is an evolutionary step above Polytheism, right? But, erm, how so, in fact? How is one unlikely (to the point of absurdities) Creation Myth superior to, or more “sophisticated”, than another (forget for a moment that Christianity is not even strictly “Monotheistic”)? Well, obviously, the edge that one Creation Myth possesses over another is in the fact that it is “ours”. Not very scientific, after all. Mostly just ethnocentric. And one can see how ethnocentric thinking, in a de facto pluralistic society, can cause friction.

    So: in summation: the gatekeepers of today may well be more inclusive/ sensitive/ Other-friendly than their 19th/ 20th centuries colleagues. But I still question their hierarchies and suspect that much of the problem (under discussion in the Original Article) is precisely there. Do I claim that various canons should be ripped up and reconstituted with Any Old Artists and Writers of Color? Hell no, my friend!


    PS “But the game is absolutely less rigged than it used to be (thought still rigged).”

    Remind me to tell you my “(rhymes with) Wuglass Bordon” story. Who totally got where he is/was because the owner of the gallery he worked at *wanted to sleep with him*. Oh, yes: rigged as ever.

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