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Museum Mondays: Exploring outdated ethics

October 7, 2012

Between 1898 and 1900, University of Chicago Professor of Anthropology Frederick Starr traveled among the indigenous people of southern Mexico. He measured the people, took photos of them and their surroundings, and made plaster casts of men from each culture group.

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Starr was a man of his times; he believed Western Europeans and European-Americans represented the pinnacle of human social evolution. Scientific racism dominated anthropology and related fields in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Charles Darwin's ideas about human biological evolution inspired evolutionary models to explain and justify the economic, social, and cultural dominance of the United States and the European colonial powers over poor and “backward” non-white people in other parts of the world. From their perspective it was a clear case of “survival of the fittest.”

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The exhibition Promptly and Easily: Frederick Starr and the Indians of Southern Mexico, which runs through the semester at the Logan Museum of Anthropology, explores Starr’s life and legacy. The Logan curates 23 plaster life casts and several photos that Starr made during his travels, which were supported in part by Chicago socialite Josephine Hancock Logan, wife of the Logan Museum’s namesake Frank Logan.

The exhibit uses casts, photos, and quotes from Starr’s publications to raise questions about ethics in scientific research and the value of data collected under theoretical models that have since been discredited. Promptly and Easily is intended to complement this year’s FYI common reading, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which raises questions about ethics, race, and class in medical research.

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On Monday, Nov. 12, North Central College Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Field Museum Research Associate Donald McVicker will present a public talk about Starr in the Logan Museum’s Shaw Gallery at 7:30 p.m. Professor McVicker’s book Frederick Starr: Popularizer of Anthropology, Public Intellectual, and Genuine Eccentric will be published later this month.