In the Museum of Man and Heroes

By Eric JenningsJanuary 7, 2014

In the Museum of Man and Heroes

In the Museum of Man: Race, Anthropology, and Empire in France, 1850-1950 by Alice L. Conklin

THE LINES the West has drawn between the study and subjugation of other peoples are as porous as they are complex. In her remarkable book In the Museum of Man: Race, Anthropology, and Empire in France, 1850-1950, Alice Conklin traces the dramatic history of French ethnology, its relationship with race and empire, and its place in the rise of the modern social sciences. The Museum of Man, housed in the Trocadéro, the impressive winged buildings on Paris’s Right Bank that tourists might mistake for a backdrop to the Eiffel Tower, emerged in the 1930s as a bold new enterprise rising on the site of the former Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro (founded 1878). The year before the dazzling new Musée de l’Homme opened in 1938, Soviet and Nazi pavilions had been locked in a showdown a few hundred yards away on the banks of the Seine during the 1937 Paris International Exposition. As Conklin reveals, the Musée de l’Homme too would serve as a defining stage, one on which a tightly knit group of ethnologists resisted not only the effort to define the “other” by racial categories, but also resisted the Nazi occupation of France, where such definitions meant life and death.

In this original and elegant book, Conklin sets out to account for the origins of the paradigm-shifting UNESCO declaration of 1950 that posited that race was first and foremost a construct, a declaration that bore a distinctive French ethnological imprint. In order to do this, she delves into the matrix of early social theory in the second half of the 19th century. She then proceeds to analyze a range of anthropological currents at play in France in the following century. In particular, Conklin traces the rise of sociologist Marcel Mauss’s and physical anthropologist Paul Rivet’s school of ethnology, a discipline that self-consciously broke with anthropology, deemed too profoundly rooted in the concept of race. Rivet and Mauss, who met circa 1911, certainly differed at times, but they shared a common approach to fieldwork, fundraising, and to mentoring, not to mention political sympathies on the mainstream Left.

Conklin’s introduction provides essential definitions of slippery terms. She clearly shows that race was a mutable concept, recast countless times from the 19th century onward. She paints a nuanced “multigenerational group portrait” of the team that shaped not just the character of the Institut d’Ethnologie in Paris, and eventually the Musée de l’Homme, but also the 1950 UNESCO declaration. From the outset, this school critiqued the anthropometric and implicitly racist work of its rivals, and embraced what Conklin terms a progressive reading of race.

French ethnology cannot be divorced from France’s overseas empire, a multitiered behemoth, second in size only to the British Empire by the late 19th century. Yet, according to Conklin, ethnologists never allowed themselves to become completely enmeshed with colonialism. For example, leading figures like Rivet, Jacques Soustelle, and soon Claude Lévi-Strauss looked to South America, where France barely had a colonial footstep, as ethnography’s terre d’élection. Similarly, when the new Musée de l’Homme opened in 1938, the visitor’s gaze met a giant totem pole from British Columbia as well as a moai from Easter Island — hardly French colonial hallmarks. French ethnology certainly depended on empire for funding and for fieldwork opportunities, but Conklin shows that its ties to colonialism cannot be reduced to any facile formula.

The book breaks new ground on several counts. Conklin shows that even while capitalizing on colonial fervor, especially around the time of the zenith of colonial enthusiasm in France — the lavish 1931 colonial exhibit at Vincennes on the outskirts of Paris — ethnologists emerged as savvy critics of empire and of racism. Others have tended to view them as simple agents or experts at the service of a colonial state. She points to the uniqueness of French ethnology, while previous researchers too often assumed a kind of US hegemony in the field. Conklin demonstrates that race could be deployed as a category in a variety of ways, not all of them fundamentally racist. Ultimately, to many leading French ethnologists, race was merely a construct, long before this argument was rearticulated by Lévi-Strauss and Michel Leiris. Yet the sinuous path to antiracism that Conklin chronicles is neither teleological nor whitewashed; it is textured, complex, and sometimes counterintuitive. Indeed, it becomes quite apparent that some of the skull-measuring and other methods that classified so-called “primitive populations” — trends that Durkheimians assumed to be moribund in the 1920s, actually proved remarkably resilient a decade later among a vocal minority of their peers.

This is also the tale of the relative lateness of French anthropology. In some ways, this tardiness was an asset: building upon the work of other ethnographers the world over, Mauss sought a total explanation akin to a unified field theory for the social sciences. So too did Rivet in another way: by combining archeological, linguistic, ethnographic, and osteological evidence to achieve what he termed a “complete” study of humanity. Both privileged evidence-based analysis, as did their protégé, the largely self-taught Georges Henri Rivière. This chronology also allowed the Trocadéro museum to become cutting edge after its reinvention in 1938, permitting, for instance, American influences, including guided visits, the use of film, the adoption of the Library of Congress classification system, and the targeting of multiple audiences, to take root. Those who, like me, remember the dusty glass cases and equally dusty pedagogical apparatus of the Musée de l’Homme of the late 1970s should not lose track of its leading position 40 years earlier. In 1943, the Swiss-American anthropologist Alfred Métraux deemed it “the most modern and dynamic anthropological museum in the world.” One wonders if it could one day reclaim that distinction: the Musée de l’Homme du Trocadéro is poised to reopen in 2015. Yet its projected role remains somewhat hazy; the French capital’s museum landscape has fundamentally changed in the last two decades, most notably with the opening of the controversial Quai Branly Museum in 2006, whose very title illustrates its amorphousness: it was initially planned as a museum of so-called “first arts,” but the site’s location name won out because of the haziness of the museum’s mission.

Especially captivating are Conklin’s sections on George Montandon and the Musée de l’Homme from the late 1930s through the second World War. In a way, this is the story of the fight waged by men and women who were the product of both a certain school of anthropology and of the Third Republic itself, some by way of adoption. Indeed, the Musée had welcomed numerous foreign and refugee scholars in the 1930s. Consider the German Henri Lehman who had fled Nazi persecution to take a post at the Museum of Man, then narrowly escaped France for South America in 1940; or the Russian Boris Vildé, who fled Stalin’s USSR to the join the Musée de l’Homme, only to become a founding member of its Resistance network in 1940. If Rivet himself was a pure product of the Third Republic, as Conklin contends, then his brainchild fought back during the German occupation of 1940-1944. Personnel at the Musée de l’Homme did so disproportionately, and on several fronts. One of the very first resistance newspapers in Paris was printed by the famed réseau du Musée de l’Homme, several of whose members, including Vildé, ultimately perished at the hands of the Nazis. Rivière’s protégé Jacques Soustelle found his way to the Free French movement by way of Mexico. Germaine Tillion joined the domestic resistance early, and managed to survive Ravensbrück.

But there is also a dark side to this episode, embodied by Montandon. Exploding earlier assessments that the Swiss-born Montandon had collaborated with the Germans for pragmatic reasons, Conklin demonstrates his sinister intellectual coherence and continuity. Already in the 1930s, he had broken with his colleagues over the genesis of humankind and the emergence of multiple races. Montandon gradually came to embrace racial hygiene. In 1938, he explicitly revealed his anti-Semitism, demanding that French Jews be deported to Palestine. The following year he published an Italian-language article on Jews unambiguously titled “L’Etnia puttana” (“The Whorish Ethnicity”). By the time France fell in 1940, Montandon had come to believe that the French were not ethnically dissimilar from the Germans and could in fact share the title and advantages of a “master race.”

Interestingly, this did not endear him to Vichy, which initially denaturalized him. (The regime was forced to reverse course on German insistence.) Perhaps more predictably, his theories appealed to the German high command in Paris. Like them, Montandon advocated a united Europe against Stalin and behind Hitler; like them, he dismissed the traditionally Catholic and conservative (though also anti-Semitic) currents at Vichy. He soon published a pamphlet on how to recognize Jews, and participated in commissions intended to ascertain the degree of Jewishness of suspects identified by the Germans. He ranted against “Judeo-Masons” and Gaullists at the Musée de l’Homme and how they had purportedly infected the establishment. The meticulous notes he passed on to the Germans, including his scrawled word “Jude” under the name of Marcel Mauss, sends shivers down the spine. Yet Montandon stands as the exception here. In point of fact, despite German support, he failed in his attempt to take over the Musée even at a time when some of its leading lights had migrated overseas.

Although her focus lies on institutions and networks, Conklin beautifully tells a number of individual and interconnected stories. The personal trajectories of Mauss, Montandon, Rivière, and Tillion are among the most engrossing. Conklin shows us how, in the 1930s, Tillion blossomed as an ethnographer, honing her interview and fieldwork skills while gaining the trust of the Chaouïa people in Algeria whom she studied. She too would lead a resistance network during the second World War, before being captured by the Nazis in 1942 and deported to Ravensbrück in 1943. After the war, she would fight the use of torture in Algeria and champion the cause of women: a life’s work that recently prompted prominent French academics to call for her admission to France’s republican shrine, the Panthéon. Indeed, people and networks come alive in this book, much like the debates over race and racism, over universalism and difference, some of which remain with us to this day. For this, and the fact that Conklin so deftly historicizes and problematizes the question of race in the buildup to the 1950 UNESCO declaration, In the Museum of Man stands out as a tour de force.


Eric T. Jennings teaches history at the University of Toronto.

LARB Contributor

Eric Jennings teaches history at the University of Toronto.  He is completing a book for Perrin (Paris), on Equatorial Africa and Cameroon as the sites of the first French resistance in 1940.  His previous works include Imperial Heights: Dalat and the Making and Undoing of French Indochina (University of California Press, 2011), Curing the Colonizers (Duke University Press, 2006) and Vichy in the Tropics (Stanford University Press, 2001).  


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