250 years after his death, Louis Agassiz continues to be a controversial figure in today’s world. Harvard-affiliated Agassiz gained renown for his landmark works done in the field of Natural History, but the relatively recent revelations of his racist views and works have slandered his name and made him the subject of ambivalence. One of his racist projects, a set of photographs he commissioned depicting naked slaves in a manner similar to experimental specimens, is now at the center of a debate between Harvard University and a Swiss group. Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography, who currently owns these images, is denying the Swiss group permission to use them at their Grindelwald exhibit featuring Agassiz and his racism.
The Boston Globe
By Mary Carmichael
June 27, 2012
“The museum’s curators say they denied the Swiss group permission to reproduce the images because of the Peabody’s blanket policy against the display of exploitative images of naked people. Other scholars agree that there is reason to be careful with such images, lest they be used not to educate but to inflame.”
“The Swiss group, however, says that the Peabody never told it about the policy, nor gave it any explanation. The group’s members — a loose, unnamed confederation led by the history teacher and activist Hans Fässler, who has devoted years to exposing little-known facets of racism in Switzerland — instead argue that Harvard is protecting one of its own. They are so angry that they have decided to show silhouettes based on the images, with captions underneath that say, in essence, Harvard didn’t want you to see the real thing.”
“’Agassiz was trying to dehumanize these subjects in an anthropological or medical way,’ said John Stauffer, chairman of Harvard’s Program in the History of American Civilization, who plans to mount his own exhibit on the images within the next year. ‘The rich irony is, what comes through is these individuals’ humanity.’”
“’These are images that were meant to denigrate people,’ said [Indiana University professor Christoph] Irmscher, who chose to show only one of them in his new book. ‘I am deeply appreciative of the efforts to expose Agassiz’ motives, but there’s a thin line between documenting the extent of his racism and perpetuating it by making these photographs public again.’”
“Although Peabody curators have spent years carefully weighing how widely the images should be distributed, there is little reason to think that Harvard has tried to shield them from public view. The Peabody has allowed them to be reproduced in photography textbooks and academic papers, on the Harvard library website, and in at least two foreign-language books that are sharply critical of Agassiz.”
“All of which raises the question of why the Swiss group cannot show them.”
The full article can be found here: http://bo.st/NI67Bi.