Putting Some Heads Together : Anthropology: The Museum of Man has pulled together an exhibit of busts of racial types from its dusty corners and basement, an exhibit that was first viewed 75 years ago.
When curators at the Museum of Man needed an exhibit to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Balboa Park this year, all they had to do was put their heads together--about 200 of them.
The hundreds of busts and masks featured in “Faces: The Smithsonian Connection” were cast by anthropologists at the Smithsonian Institution for Balboa Park’s 1915 California-Panama Exposition.
Since the fair closed in 1916, the heads have been trundled about the adobe museum, from the basement where they were kept during World War II, to various shelves in the museum’s library and other hidden corners where they have collected dust.
This is the first time the original exhibit has been reassembled in 75 years.
“It’s a wonder they’re in as good a shape as they are,” said Rose Tyson, as she dabbed ocher paint on one bust to cover chips in its plaster.
Tyson, the museum’s curator of physical anthropology, was repairing and repainting the busts for the exhibit’s opening Friday.
Remarkably few of the plaster casts had been broken during the past few decades, but some were repainted for other shows. Tyson wanted to restore the original sienna coloring before putting them on display.
The busts were made from face casts taken by Dr. Ales Hrdlicka, the Smithsonian’s curator of physical anthropology at the turn of the century. Commissioned by the city of San Diego to create an exhibit for the 1915 exposition here, Hrdlicka set about casting the faces of 90 native Americans and black and white Americans whose ages ranged from 9 days to 114 years.
His goal was to show “human variations,” Tyson said. Hrdlicka cast 30 faces from each ethnic group--a male and female of each age group, ranging from infant through toddler, child, adolescent, young adult and adulthood to old age.
Because Hrdlicka lived in Washington, his models came from that area, Tyson said. The whites were prominent residents willing to have plaster slapped on their faces.
“They put straws up their noses and then they sat there until the plaster hardened. So it wasn’t easy,” Tyson said.
One model was John Preston Wiley, only 10 days old when he modeled for Hrdlicka and Frank Micka, the sculptor who created the busts from the plaster face masks. Wiley’s father was the first head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Today, Wiley lives in Paraguay with his family, but his daughter, Juanita, 14, recently visited the exhibit Tyson is working on.
Because Hrdlicka could not cast a face mask of an infant, he had Micka sculpt baby Wiley from clay. The child lay on the floor while Micka worked nearby to create a likeness.
William Reed of La Jolla is also connected to the exhibit. His great grandmother, Ruth Griswold Pealer, was 65 when her face was cast for the exhibit.
The blacks who modeled also lived in the capital, though Tyson said less is known about their backgrounds. The Indian busts were modeled from members of the Teton Sioux tribe on Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota. Hrdlicka spent 2 1/2 years visiting the reservation and making the masks.
Once the plaster molds were collected, plaster busts were made from a master cast in wax. The subjects then came to sit for the sculptor, who shaped the eyes, hair, neck, throats and shoulders of the models to complete the figurines. The subjects were chosen on the basis of their age, good health and good looks, Tyson said.
The faces show amazing detail, from the smooth skin and bobbed hair of 3-year-old Sarah Clark to the noble lines on the face of former slave Mahala Ayes, 114. Each statute weighs from 5 to 10 pounds and is hollow inside.
While Hrdlicka worked on his project in Washington, he sent other scientists around the world to gather face casts from other nations--Peru, the Philippines, Japan, Africa and Asia.
By showing the genetic similarities between Asians in Siberia, Eskimos in North America and American Indians, the display became the first public exhibit to illustrate the connection between American Indians and the people of Asia via the Bering Land Bridge over what is now the Bering Sea, Tyson said.
It was the largest and most ambitious physical anthropology display of its day.
“Faces” may seem tame by today’s museum standards, but people of the early 1900s were fascinated by the differences between races, Tyson said.