Now restored, a collection of early 20th century bronzes help the viewer explore the charged issue of race.
4-H Club members visit the Field Museum while on a 1944 trip to Chicago. By the time The Races of Mankind was deinstalled in 1969 its main message—that human physical differences could be categorized into “races”—had reached more than 10 million people. The statues became famous, and were reproduced in textbooks and maps.
Hoffman worked for three years—in studios in New York and Paris and in locations around the globe—to create the pieces featured in the exhibition. In her letters from the field, arriving with postmarks from countries throughout Asia, Europe, and the Americas, she made it clear to curators that while her sculptures were to be used as primarily illustrations of racial type, she also wanted to show the dignity and individuality of her subjects, as well as the beauty of the human form.
In 1933 these sculptures were presented as anonymous examples of racial types. The 2016 exhibition team felt that knowing the subjects’ names was an important part of seeing them as individuals, and spent months in the Museum’s archives reading Hoffman’s and her husband’s letters and journals, and consulting the work of others who have researched the Hoffman collection over the years. This piece, previously labeled "San Ildefonso Pueblo Woman," was revealed to be a portrait of Desideria Montoya Sanchez, a member of a famous pottery-making family in New Mexico.
For some of the sculptures the team could find no record of the portrait sitter’s name. They did, however, work with Museum anthropologists to correct the names for the individual’s ethnic groups. This statue, originally called “Shilluk Warrior, Sudan,” is now presented as “A Nuer man from Sudan.”
This man from Southern India showed Hoffman the climbing technique used to collect sap from palm trees to make wine. Many species of palm tree can grow to over 80 feet in height. Using two loops of rope, this man could climb to their tops to collect the sap in special containers. This simple but effective technology requires more work than simply cutting the tree down—but it helps people use a natural resource without destroying it.
Conservation and re-installation of the Hoffman works at The Field Museum was made possible by a generous gift from Pamela K. and Roger B. Hull.
The exhibition is made possible with the support of The Elizabeth Morse Genius Charitable Trust and an anonymous donor.