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Abstract

Museum exhibits, as showcases of what is deemed worth seeing at a period in time, reflect societal biases, political influences, and authority-making processes. The museum’s ability to confer social authority is especially important in the communication of scientific meaning through displays of human remains. Exhibits of human remains in anthropological collections have posed numerous contentious issues in representation, with debates centering around who can claim ownership of the body on public display, and the narrative underlying those bodies. Claimants in this debate include descendants of displayed individuals; scientists who assert their right to generate knowledge on behalf of humanity by studying and displaying these bodies; museums who defend their position as stewards of cultural heritage; landowners or nation-states in which these bodies were found; and lawmakers that preside over these bodies, who hold the authority to broker compromise between the other claimants. Through personal interviews with a variety of claimants, this thesis traces anthropological displays of the human body at the Field Museum, starting from the World’s Fair of 1893 to repatriations and paleoanthropological exhibits of the current day. This examination aims to ground the global debate in one specific site of contestation. Towards that aim, this thesis culturally contextualizes human remains displays, examines tensions between public spectacle and scientific communication, and discusses how authority is expressed through the medium of the body. These themes reflect how human identities, both social and scientific, are shaped by the bodies on display at the anthropology museum.

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