For decades, the bronzes created by the artist Malvina Hoffman for the Field Museum’s “Races of Mankind” exhibit have had a ghostly afterlife at the institution. Hailed at their unveiling in 1933 as “the finest racial portraiture the world has yet seen” and viewed by millions of visitors, the sculptures were banished to storage in 1969, embarrassing relics of discredited ideas about human difference.
“When I first came here, I sort of fell in love with them,” Alaka Wali, an anthropologist at the museum, recalled recently. “But there was always debate about what the museum should do with them. They were problematic objects.”
Now the Field Museum has put 50 of the 104 sculptures back on display as part of “Looking at Ourselves: Rethinking the Sculptures of Malvina Hoffman,” an exhibition exploring both Hoffman’s artistry and the vexed history of the dubious scientific ideas that her talent was enlisted to serve. At the time of the bronzes’ creation, many anthropologists believed that the world’s people could be divided into distinct racial types, whose visible differences in skin tone, hair texture and bone structure explained differences in behavior.
It’s an idea, the show makes clear through wall texts and video touch-screen displays, that scientists have abandoned, though hardly one that has entirely gone away.
“It’s not as if just because scientists say race is not a biological fact, that it doesn’t continue to have an impact,” Ms. Wali, who curated the exhibition, said during a tour of the gallery. She stopped near a section discussing the legacy of scientific racism, which includes photographs of Black Lives Matter protests.
“Scientists can now show that human genetic variation doesn’t correspond to racial types,” she said. “But people don’t always listen to scientists.”
The new exhibition, which runs through the end of the year, was financed in part by Pamela K. Hull, a granddaughter of Stanley Field, the museum’s president from 1909 to 1964, who paid for the restoration of the bronzes.
It was Field who, in 1929, voted with the museum’s board to commission a group of artists to depict the world’s varied “racial types in a dignified manner.” Instead, the whole job went to Hoffman, a New York sculptor who had studied with Rodin, in what The New York Times called “probably the largest commission ever granted any sculptor,” male or female.
Hoffman traveled the world looking for models with her husband, Samuel Grimson, who took thousands of photographs and made film clips of potential subjects. Hoffman, who once studied anatomy by dissecting cadavers alongside medical students, approached the project with a meticulous realism, using different patinas to subtly suggest skin tones.
The “Races” exhibit, which opened in 1933, included both simple busts and elaborate life-size pieces showing people shooting arrows, climbing trees or posing with spears. In the center stood “Unity of Man,” showing noble figures representing what were believed to be the world’s three main racial groups shouldering the globe equally. But its overall thrust–driven home by diagrams showing different nose types and the like–was unmistakable: The world’s peoples could be arranged in a hierarchy, from the primitive to the most civilized.