Why museum anthropology?

Once upon a time it was easy to say what anthropology is all about. 

As the philosopher David Hume suggested in the 18th century (long before anyone called herself or himself an “anthropologist”), there used to be general agreement that Anthropology spelled with a capital “A” is the “Science of Man.”* 

Nowadays, however, there seem to be as many definitions of anthropology as a science or humanistic pursuit as there are people who want to call themselves anthropologists. 

Here, nonetheless, is a definition we think works pretty well: 

Anthropologists are people who are trying to figure out how central or insignificant human diversity is to the human experience and the scientific definition of ourselves as a biological species.

The fact of our diversity in so many different ways—social, cultural, and biological—is obvious enough. 

But why is this so?

* Christopher J. Berry, "Hume’s Universalism: The Science of Man and the Anthropological Point of View." British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 15: 535–550, 2007.

It has been said that North Americans like to see themselves as free and independent individuals—as masters of their own fate, their own destiny.

Given global warming, the world’s current financial disarray, pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia, and swine flu outbreaks in countries as far apart as Mexico and New Zealand, it is not so easy nowadays to see ourselves as the lords of all creation.

The great thing about museum anthropology collections is that they are the real thing. They are not just a bunch of words, pictures, or computer files.

Anthropologists like to study museum collections because “real things” can testify just as strongly as eye-witness accounts in a court of law to the “who, when, where, why, and what” of human history and human diversity.

The really fine thing about great anthropology collections like those at The Field Museum is that they can show us so convincingly—not just tell us—how we human beings are at one and the same time both amazingly inventive creatures, and yet are also confronted by real and challenging threats, demands, and opportunities.