Rotten Foundations, Dangerous Footholds

A series of demonstration projects confronting Scientific Racism in institutional spaces and the process of (un)becoming human


Fields of Knowledge
  • Curatorial practice
  • Pedagogy
  • Public culture
  • Social Justice

Organizing Institutions

Slought, Department of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania


Deborah A. Thomas, in collaboration with Paul Mitchell, Jeff Vadala, and students

Opens to public





4017 Walnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Slought and the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania are pleased to announce "Rotten Foundations, Dangerous Footholds," a series of demonstration projects confronting Scientific Racism in institutional spaces and the process of (un)becoming human, on display at Slought from December 9, 2021 to December 21, 2021. An opening event will take place on Thursday, December 9, 2021, beginning with a screening of "The Controversial Carleton Coon: Legacies of Scientific Racism in American Anthropology," a short film directed and produced by Aleia Manning and Jesus Pallares. This will be followed by informal remarks by Deborah A. Thomas and members of her introductory class "Anthropology, Race, and the Making of the Modern World."

Emerging in the early 19th century, scientific racism served to legitimate the white supremacy that undergirded European exploration, Indigenous dispossession, and African slavery. By the late 19th century, this ideology came to be institutionalized at what is now the Penn Museum, and in the department of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. Penn was only one of several scientific institutions across Philadelphia where the so-called science of race and theories of polygenesis were elaborated. These theories, promulgated by physicians like Samuel G. Morton, and Penn anthropologists Daniel G. Brinton and Carleton S. Coon, were built on the bodies of Indigenous and African descended peoples, who were collected, researched, and exhibited as objects among other objects. This exhibit tackles this history, and explores how it lives today. It seeks to lay bare the contemporary legacies of Scientific Racism in our institutional spaces by probing the problems of classification, dehumanization, misrecognition, and disavowal.

Modern museums originated as "curiosity cabinets," a collecting practice that emerged soon after 1500 AD, alongside European exploration overseas and their contact with people with different cultural practices, beliefs, and material cultures. These curiosity cabinets were often quite random collections of objects, but they were nevertheless important for the early development of geology, biology, and archaeology, and for the generation of civilizational hierarchies among peoples worldwide. While these early kinds of collections were often privately held, the beginnings of anthropological collections in museums, and the separation of these collections from natural history collections, dates from about 1840. By the late 19th century, university anthropological museums were established at Penn, Harvard, and Columbia (which was affiliated with the American Museum of Natural History). The collections in these museums grew to hold thousands of ancestors. This is because the measurement of skeletons – and crania in particular – was used by anthropologists to solidify a racial evolutionary hierarchy that was ultimately used to support slavery, Indian removal, and, later, segregation.

This exhibit is designed to be a series of demonstration projects, experiments in how we might challenge conventional ethnographic modes of looking, and visualizing culture and otherness. If capitalist modernity is grounded in conquest, expansionism, and genocide, then how do we account for the ways Enlightenment science continues to structure our thinking about race and difference? How can institutions reckon with these histories, and how might we create the conditions to confront our complicities with these histories? If we understand that the way we treat the dead reflects our value of the living, then how must we be accountable, both to the dead and to the living? How do we work toward repair and justice?

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Land Acknowledgment

A land acknowledgment, and its accompanying visualizations and mapping projects, engages the public in confronting ongoing settler colonialism on Penn's campus and in Philadelphia. This project demonstrates how processes of dispossession have occurred over time and across space throughout Lenapehoking, and relates these processes to ongoing forms of imperialism, racism, and war.

Bone Room

Historically, physical anthropologists amassed skeletal collections for research that solidified racially-coded understandings of human evolution. Within ethnographic museums, these have been kept in "bone rooms." Crania became particularly important to physicians and proto-anthropologists like Samuel G. Morton, who developed a system of measuring particular "traits" to hierarchically categorize skeletal materials into racial groups. In the "bone room," visitors are confronted with a "collection" of papier machê crania, and are invited to categorize them according to their visible "traits." How does the very act of categorizing dehumanize? How does it reify visible differences?

Human Evolution and Human Remains

This project visually interrogates policies concerning human remains developed within museums and other institutions, as well as exhibitions about human evolution that often emerged from "bone rooms." It is meant to provoke the following questions: What are the effects of decontextualizing parts of the body from the whole, and separating humans from their cultures and histories? How have exhibits of decontextualized humans reinforced a narrative of racial progress toward European civilization? In what ways can we challenge these forms of dehumanization?

Life Masks

The casting of faces became part of physical anthropology around the same time as photographic technologies were developed around the mid-19th century. Both French and German physicians and physical anthropologists pioneered these technologies within their colonial empires, while the Dutch also created casts of people in their colonial territories. Many ethnographic museums received, purchased, and/or constructed anthropological casts in order to tell the story of human evolution and advance stereotypical representations of earlier hominids and racial groups. This project features a grid of newly constructed life casts of undergraduate students in course Anthropology 002 in order to ask: What would it take to humanize and contextualize physical remains? If someone were to make a cast of you, what kind of contextual information would you want to accompany it, and in what form? The public will be invited to scan the QR code in order to access students' answers to these questions.


This project features a wall of present absences, inviting the public to confront "agential opacity" and the refusal to be seen and known, captured, and confined by Western categories and hierarchies. Viewers will be asked to confront their desires and to make visible that which is deliberately held from view.


Rotten Foundations was developed by Deborah A. Thomas (R. Jean Brownlee Professor of Anthropology and Director, Center for Experimental Ethnography), in collaboration with Paul Mitchell, Jeff Vadala, and her introductory class, "Anthropology, Race, and the Making of the Modern World" at the University of Pennsylvania.

Special thanks are due to Xiao Ke and Katleho Kano Shoro (teaching assistants for the class), and to Alissa Jordan (Associate Director, Center for Experimental Ethnography). We are grateful for the support of Penn Museum staff who helped us conceptualize and realize our vision.

"Since colonization has produced fragmentation and dismemberment at both the material and psychic levels, the work of decolonization has to make room for the deep yearning for wholeness, often expressed as a yearning to belong that is both material and existential, both psychic and physical, and which, when satisfied, can subvert and ultimately displace the pain of dismemberment."

— M. Jacqui Alexander, Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory and the Sacred (2005:281)