Exhibiting Physical Anthropology in Vienna: About the complexity of science, collections and exhibitions

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Margit Berner

Museums of Medicine in Past and Present: Innovating the use of medical collections as public and private academic resources,” 12-14. May 2010, Semmelweis Museum Budapest.

The Museum of Natural History in Vienna was founded in 1876, and opened its doors to the public in 1882. The exhibitions were set up according to the 19th century exhibition classification and as taxonomical, geographical and evolutionary classification. A permanent section on physical anthropology was opened in 1930, which has featured several temporal and permanent exhibitions since.

The origins of the collection on physical anthropology go back to the 19th century, mainly to the collection of the Anthropological Society in Vienna, and predominantly consisted of crania from anatomical and private collections. With the introduction of new scientific methods and documentation new collections on photographs, hair samples, hand- and fingerprints and human moulds were founded. The biggest and ethically most problematic collection consists of photographs and facial masks taken by Viennese anthropologists in the course of their extensive research on prisoners of war and victims of the Shoa during the Nazi period.

This presentation seeks to explore the disciplinary, historical and social contexts in which the physical anthropology collections were created and exist today. Moreover, these collections pose difficult ethical questions including the question of what to do with the physical remains themselves, and how to present these in exhibitions today.

Oxford Brookes University



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