Ann Fabian


On her book The Skull Collectors: Race, Science, and America’s Unburied Dead

Cover Interview of December 15, 2010


The Skull Collectors gathers stories that mix the scientific aspirations of explorers and collectors, the hopes of missionaries and converts, and the histories of people from places as different as the banks of the Columbia River and the shores of Fiji.

Why do these stories matter?  Any cultural historian would be struck by the differences between the skull collectors’ nineteenth-century world and our own.  It no longer seems right to collect and display the remains of native dead, however curious we might be about what the bones might tell us.

The scientific collectors I write about collected remains from around the world, but the bodies of Native American dead dominated their collections.  Telling the story of the collection and repatriation of these remains, historians often have given the native dead a special status.  But this approach has missed the important ways the history of skull collecting tells a universal human story about loss, memory, and the need to bury the dead.

It is surprising what we learn when we pay attention to the dead.

© 2010 Ann Fabian