Lost in the controversy over Roosevelt, however, was the fact that within its doors, the museum honors a far more disturbing individual.
That individual is Henry Fairfield Obsorn (1857-1935), the AMNH’s president for 25 years. As discussed in my documentary Human Zoos, Osborn was one of America’s most prominent proponents of evolution in the first half of the 20th century. He served as a professor of zoology at Columbia University and as head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Champion of Eugenics
Osborn was also a scientific racist who championed eugenics, the horrific crusade to breed a superior human race based on the principles of Darwinian biology. Osborn even arranged for the American Museum of Natural History to host two international congresses on eugenics, as well as to accompany the meetings with large museum exhibits extolling eugenics and disparaging non-white races.
In a speech to fellow eugenists in 1921, Osborn attacked racial intermarriage, declaring that
500,000 years of human evolution, under widely different environmental conditions, have impressed certain distinctive virtues as well as faults on each race. In the matter of racial virtues, my opinion is that from biologial principles there is little promise in the “melting pot” theory. Put three races together, you are as likely to unite the vices of all three as the virtues.
Arguing that racial groups should be studied to determine what tasks “each race is best fitted to accomplish,” Osborn was pretty clear that he already knew the proper place of non-whites in society, especially blacks. In his words, “If the Negro fails in government, he may become a fine agriculturalist or a fine mechanic.” (“Address of Welcome,” Scientific Papers of the Second International Congress of Eugenics, 2-3)
In an article on human evolution in 1926, Osborn asserted that “the standard of intelligence of the average adult Negro is similar to that of the eleven-year-old youth of the species Homo sapiens.” (“The Evolution of Human Races,” Natural History, Jan-Feb 1926, 5)
A Toxic Legacy
Despite Osborn’s toxic legacy of scientific racism, the American Museum of Natural History for decades has continued to honor him with a bust and a wall inscription. The wall inscription proclaims that “Under his leadership the museum attained great eminence in science and education.” When I visited the museum in the spring of 2019, both the bust and wall inscription were still on display.
However, the two displays were now disconnected. Originally, the bust of Osborn was located directly beneath the wall inscription. But sometime in the past few years, the AMNH moved the bust of Osborn to another room so it is no longer near the wall inscription. The bust now stands alone without any label telling who the person is. Perhaps someone at the museum was embarrassed enough about their longtime previous director to try to hide him in plain sight? The wall inscription, by contrast, remains where it has always been, with no bust beneath it.
No Response to an Inquiry
This week I asked the museum’s press office about whether they planned to remove the bust and wall inscription. Thus far, they have failed to respond.
To be clear, I generally don’t favor removing old statues. I prefer using them as an occasion for learning about the past. In the case of Osborn, I’d suggest that the museum create an exhibit that exposes and explores Osborn’s embrace of Darwinian racism and eugenics and his role in getting the museum to promote those ideas. Let people know about the past. Don’t pretend it didn’t happened, and don’t sweep it under the rug.