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Instructions for race-making: skull collecting at Edinburgh University's Natural History Museum

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Eighteenth and 19th-century European empires abounded with natural-history instructions for travellers and colonial settlers on how best to organise travels, gather information, and collect and preserve specimens and artefacts. My presentation will focus on a set of instructions penned in 1817 by Professor Robert Jameson at the University of Edinburgh. The instructions were designed to encourage Britons overseas to collect for the university’s natural history museum. Their contents ranged from technical guidance on how to preserve insects to recommendations about what to collect, such as the ‘warlike instruments of different Nations and Tribes’. For Jameson, and many contemporaries, the study of mankind was an important part of the natural historian’s remit. Jameson urged people to collect human remains and skulls in particular. During his museum stewardship a large number of skulls arrived from across the globe. Through an analysis of Jameson’s instructions and his network of collectors, which encompassed a wide range of colonial actors, I will discuss the co-construction of ‘race’ during the first half of the 19th century.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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