Gaia Duberti

Project Title: Skulls of an Empire: investigating the potential of digital archiving as a decolonising praxis for the human remains collections at the University of Edinburgh.

Throughout the nineteenth century, scientists – including geographers, biologists and anthropologists – were interested not only in classifying biodiversity, natural resources and climates; they were also invested in classifying humanity according to racial categories – which reflected colonial ideologies of morality and progress. As part of this process, scholars in Europe and the United States collected skeletal specimens from around the world. Today, these collections remain, and they present museum professionals, academics and the wider public with thorny questions about their legacy.

The Anatomical Museum at the University of Edinburgh houses a collection of almost 1400 human skulls, which was created by Sir William Turner, Professor of Anatomy and Principal of the University, between the 1860s and 1910s. He received the skulls from former medical students and colleagues who collected them from burial grounds, hospital morgues, battlefields and colonial prisons across the globe. Recent repatriations exposed the gaps in our knowledge of the collection, and sparked a conversation within the University around its future.

My research will uncover and narrate a detailed history of the Skull Collection and build the foundations for its first digital archive. This archive will be structured around principles of postmodern archival theory and decolonial values, which will enable researchers and descendant communities to conduct further research around this fascinating and yet problematic collection.

Awarded: Carnegie PhD Scholarship

Field: Historical Geography

University: University of Edinburgh

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