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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  31 January 2011

University of Cambridge
Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Free School Lane, Cambridge, CB2


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’.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2011

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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 Efram Sera-Shriar and Kate Nichols deserve particular thanks for their helpful feedback and for allowing me access to unpublished material.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.


1 John Conolly, The ethnological exhibitions of London (London, 1855), pp. 5–7.

2 Sadiah Qureshi, Peoples on parade: human exhibitions, empire and anthropology in nineteenth-century Britain (Chicago, IL, forthcoming).

3 Robert Rydell, All the world's a fair: visions of empire at American international expositions, 1876–1916 (Chicago, IL, 1984); and Nancy J. Parezo and Don D. Fowler, Anthropology goes to the fair: the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition (Lincoln, NE, 2008), document anthropologists' involvement, most obviously in the 1893 Chicago and 1904 St Louis exhibitions. See also Paul Greenhalgh, Ephemeral vistas: the expositions universelles, great exhibitions and world's fairs, 1851–1939 (Manchester, 1988); Lee D. Baker, From savage to negro: anthropology and the construction of race, 1896–1954 (Berkeley, CA, 1988), pp. 79–80; and Pascal Blanchard et al., Human zoos: science and spectacle in the age of colonial empires (Liverpool, 2008), pp. 1–49, especially p. 44 n. 48.

4 Colin Kidd, The forging of races: race and scripture in the Protestant Atlantic world, 1600–2000 (Cambridge, 2006), pp. 1–18.

5 Nigel Rothfels, Savages and beasts: the birth of the modern zoo (Baltimore, MD, 2002), and Andrew Zimmerman, Anthropology and anti-humanism in imperial Germany (Chicago, IL, 2001).

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8 For influential examples see Robert C. Young, Colonial desire: hybridity in theory, culture and race (London, 1995); Philip D. Curtin, The image of Africa: British ideas and action, 1780–1850 (2 vols., Madison, WI, 1964), ii, p. 377; and Catherine Hall, Kith McClelland, and Jane Rendall, eds., Defining the Victorian nation: class, race, gender and the Reform Act of 1867 (Cambridge, 2000), pp. 191–2. Significantly, Catherine Hall, Civilising subjects: metropole and colony in the English imagination, 1830–1867 (Cambridge, 2002), pp. 48–9 and 275–6, shifts focus away from this view of Knox. Compare with Peter Mandler, ‘The problem with cultural history’, Cultural and Social History, 2004, pp. 94–117.

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12 Piggott, Palace of the people, p. v.

13 Secord, ‘Monsters at the Crystal Palace’, p. 139.

14 Piggott, Palace of the people, p. 61. Piggott notes that 60 million people visited Sydenham in its first twelve years.

15 ‘A visit to the Crystal Palace’, Lady's Newspaper, 10 June 1854, p. 364.

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18 Latham and Forbes, Natural history department, p. 54.

19 Ibid., p. 6 and ‘Punch's handbooks to the Crystal Palace’, Punch, 27, (1854), pp. 8–9 at p. 8. Many other courts also had a dedicated guidebook.

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29 Latham and Forbes, Natural history department, p. 5.

30 ‘Punch's handbooks to the Crystal Palace’, p. 8.

31 Kate Nichols, Greece and Rome at the Crystal Palace: classical sculpture and modern Britain, 1854–1936 (Oxford, forthcoming).

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34 Piggott, Palace of the people, p. 126.

35 Nichols, Greece and Rome at the Crystal Palace.

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45 Handbill 1853, John Johnson collection of printed ephemera, Bodleian Library, Oxford, Waxworks, 3 (41).

46 Piggott, Palace of the people, p. 127; William Thomson, Crystal Palace, Sydenham. Natural history department. Ethnological collection (London, 1852); idem, Crystal Palace, Sydenham. Natural history department. Raw produce collection (London, 1852); and idem, Crystal Palace, Sydenham. Natural history department. Zoological collection (London, 1852).

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52 Ibid., pp. 41–2.

53 Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford (catalogue numbers PRM 1998.210.3 and PRM 1998.211.9). Reproduced in Qureshi, Peoples on parade.

54 Elizabeth Edwards, Raw histories: anthropology, photographs and museums (Oxford, 2001).

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57 ‘Disastrous fire at the Crystal Palace’, Daily News, 31 Dec. 1866, p. 5; and ‘Anthropological news’, Anthropological Review, 5, (1867), pp. 240–56 (especially pp. 241–2).

58 Qureshi, Peoples on parade. Also see Efram Sera-Shriar, ‘Beyond the armchair: early ethnographic practice and the making of British anthropology, 1813–1871’ (Ph.D. diss., Leeds, forthcoming), and, for a later period, see De l'Estoile, Benoît, ‘From the colonial exhibition to the museum of man. An alternative genealogy of French anthropology’, Social Anthropology, 11, (2003), pp. 341–61CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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66 Stocking's Victorian anthropology has proved seminal in this respect.

67 Sera-Shriar, ‘Beyond the armchair’.

68 Stepan, The idea of race in science.

69 Henrika Kuklick, The savage within: the social history of British anthropology, 1885–1945 (Cambridge, 1991); and Fredrik Barth et al., One discipline, four ways: British, German, French and American anthropology (Chicago, IL, 2005). Sera-Shriar, ‘Beyond the armchair’, revises this historiography.

70 Thomas H. Huxley, ‘On the methods and results of ethnology’, in Man's place in nature: and other anthropological essays (London, 1900), pp. 209–52 at pp. 209–10.

71 Stocking, Victorian anthropology, pp. 254–7.

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77 Richards, ‘The “moral anatomy” of Robert Knox’.

78 The classic account, which has been consistently reproduced, remains Stocking, Victorian anthropology, especially pp. 239–73.

79 Robert G. Latham, The varieties of human species: being a manual of ethnography: introductory to the study of history (London, [c. 1860]).

80 Stepan, The idea of race in science.

81 Piggott, Palace of the people, p. 126.

82 Qureshi, Peoples on parade.

83 George Stocking, After Tylor: British social anthropology, 1888–1951 (London, 1995); Kuklick, Savage within.

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