Where the Whacky Franz Boas Pictures Come From

Where the Whacky Franz Boas Pictures Come From

Ya’ll know what I’m talking about, right?

Franz Boas posing
Franz Boas posing for figure in USNM exhibit entitled “Hamats’a coming out of secret room” 1895 or before. Via the Smithsonian.

These pictures get used all the time on the Internet and in class. Memeworthy in extremis, they manage to pay homage to a founder of our discipline while simultaneously to taking him too seriously — an ironic, typically anthropological move. But where do they actually come from? In honor of the new twitter account for my history of anthropology tumblr, Highly Accurate Pictures of Anthropologists, I tracked down the original picture.

As some of you might already know, this is just one of a series of pictures that were taken of Boas to help with the preparation of an exhibit at the United States National Museum, aka the Smithsonian. The exhibition was a recreation of the Hamat’sa Dance  of the Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw (“Kwakiutl”) people Boas hung out with in British Columbia back in the day. This picture is the most frequently used image from this set, but Boas actually posed for around a dozen more of these photographs, modeling (afaik) all of the participants in the ceremony.

Thanks to the Smithsonian’s digitization project, you can now see and create memes with all twelve images of Boas posing  . Some of these you’ve probably seen before, but some of them get much less circulation. It’s great that the Smithsonian – or more precisely, the National Anthropology Archives, which is part of the Smithsonian — have made these images available, and encourage nonprofit, personal, and educational use. However, it’s very hard to use the Smithsonian’s website to look these images up. It’s not the museum’s fault, there’s just too much stuff in too many collections for a non expert to navigate. So I thought I’d link here to the search parameters that will get you right to the pictures of Boas posing. Happy Friday!!

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book “Leviathans at the Gold Mine” won the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology book award. He is interested in political anthropology, the anthropology of virtual worlds, the history of anthropology, and public anthropology and open access scholarship.

One Reply to “Where the Whacky Franz Boas Pictures Come From”

  1. This posting is unfortunate. Boas explicitly requested that this photo be destroyed when the exhibit was completed. One of the staff kept it and circulated it, against Boas’s clear concern that his posing seemed disrespectful to his Kwakiutl (Kwakwaka’wakw) collaborators. The AAA used one of these photos meant for the sculptor of the mannequins, for its Franz Boas Medal, and the outcry against this gross disrespect both to Boas and to the Kwakwaka’wakw was accepted by the AAA and no longer used for its medals.

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