Arts & Culture

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Rethinking the Sculptures of Malvina Hoffman

Now restored, a collection of early 20th century bronzes help the viewer explore the charged issue of race.

Hoffman’s bronzes are unveiled
In 1933, the Field Museum opened its hall of The Races of Mankind. The exhibition featured the work of renowned artist Malvina Hoffman—104 bronze statues of people from around the world—intended as illustrations of “racial types.”

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.

About the artist
Malvina Hoffman—a New York-born sculptor—specialized in life-size sculptures in bronze, plaster, and marble. Stanley Field, then-director of The Field Museum, commissioned Hoffman to create more than 100 bronze sculptures for The Races of Mankind. Hoffman did not always agree with the Museum’s curators about racial typologies, but was eager to have her sculptures exhibited, and took on the task with passion and dedication.

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.

Decades of damage
By 1969 the exhibition’s message about racial types was known to be scientifically inaccurate, and The Races of Mankind was deinstalled. However,  some of the sculptures were kept on display in hallways and other public areas, not as science, but as art. Visitors couldn’t resist touching them, and over the years the statues became damaged. As this sculpture of a woman from Japan shows, many pieces were touched so frequently that their patina was worn away completely.
Restoring the Hoffman sculptures
In 2013 Field Museum conservators went to work, and, after 16 months, had restored a total of 87 sculptures. Each piece had to be analyzed to develop a  unique treatment plan. Conservators gently removed 80 years of skin oils, soap, and dust without harming the original work.
Today's exhibition
The 1933 exhibition promoted scientific racism, which defined a set of racial categories based on physical appearance. Having concluded that people belong to fundamentally different racial categories, it was only a short step to decide that they should be treated differently. People in the San ethnic group are an example of that different treatment. Often depicted as “primitive,” or “stone age,” the San have repeatedly been forced off their land.  Today most San people live in or near the Kalahari desert. The San have a long history of using creativity to adapt to the harsh but fragile desert environment. Here, a woman holds her baby on her back and uses ostrich egg containers to store water. A man hunts with an arrow that may be poisoned with the larvae of leaf beetles.

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.

Credits: Exhibit

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.

Credits: All media
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