Chapter 5 Otis T. Mason and Hippocratic Environmental Theory at the Smithsonian Institution in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

In: Brill's Companion to Classics and Early Anthropology
Rebecca Futo Kennedy
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Otis T. Mason organized and maintained the ethnological materials housed and collected by the early Smithsonian Institution and created the system used for their display. This chapter explores the ancient ideas that informed early museum anthropology and World’s Fairs displays under the leadership of Mason and the Smithsonian. Mason’s education and scholarly background shows that the organizational principles for his “progress of the races” displays were rooted in his interpretations of and belief in certain aspects of the classical theory of environmental determinism, especially those expounded in the Hippocratic Airs, Waters, Places. Mason’s work on Native American cultures reveals both his classical education and his early investment in European theories of the evolution of mankind. Mason’s environmental scheme was combined with the then prominent theories of the progress of mankind to create ethnographic exhibits that promoted a “proper interpretation of social and political reality” (, 3). These exhibits organized the races—Native Americans in particular—on a spectrum from savage to barbarian to enlightened, civilized, and free that reflected his fusion of modern ideas of race progress with ancient environmental determinism. This fusion informed his core theoretical idea of the “culture area”, a theory that linked technological and cultural development to the availability of resources and climate. A people who had not progressed from the stage of dependence on their environment were considered, like Brinton’s “black, brown, and red” peoples, “lower” culture groups (). Mason’s theories and manifestation of them in museum displays allowed for and encouraged the systematic eradication of these lesser races, something he considered not only inevitable but necessary for the continued progress of the “higher” races.

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