Andrew D. Nicholls, Ph.D. Professor and Chair
Date of Award
Museum Studies, M.A.
History and Social Studies Education Department
Dr. Cynthia Conides
Dr. Lisa Marie Anselmi
This research illustrates the impact museums have on social, political, and educational systems through the exploration of the eugenics movement in American museums. Museum professionals promoted racial hierarchies and eugenic ideologies at World’s Fairs through the exploitation of “exotic” peoples and contests designed to judge and categorize racial differences based on an individual’s physical and mental characteristics.
Following World’s Fairs, museums began displaying eugenic themed exhibits. Prominent museum professionals and government officials of the early twentieth century used their position of authority to promote the eugenics movement in National and regional American museums through educational exhibits using approachable science-based exhibit techniques, photographs, and interactive displays.
As the eugenics movement gained momentum, its presence in politics became more frequent, as demonstrated by the passage of the Eugenical Sterilization Act and the Racial Integrity Act in the 1920s. The government’s impact on vulnerable classes was extensive. Presented are two examples of forced sterilization to illustrate how the lessons taught in American museums can directly influence political policies.
The tumultuous political climate of the twenty-first century may be to blame for the re-emergence of similar attitudes. This re-emergence presents museums with the opportunity to redefine their role in a movement that they were once a proponent of and challenge them to speak out against the revival.
Wachtel, Anna, "Exhibiting Prejudice: How Twentieth-Century Museums Promoted the Eugenics Movement" (2020). Museum Studies Theses. 24.