The Secret Museum of Mankind
What a strange and mysterious book. It’s full of grainy black and white photographs, depicting indigenous people from all over the world. There’s no running text; it’s just pictures and captions, one after another. And what captions! Negative cultural stereotypes abound in these capsuled annotations to each photograph. I hesitate to put in text that can be googled the biases and condescension I found. I found particularly insulting the comments on women’s fashion and appearance.
“Stylishly gowned and coiffured, this young lady has charms exceptional among women of [ethnic group withheld] origin, who are usually very unattractive and have lamentable lack of taste in dress.”
“Forsaking her native costume which would better become her, she deems herself at the height of graceful achievement in what, elsewhere, might pass as a tablecloth.”
On music, the commentary is not much better.
“Most of the tribes of the [region withheld] are devoted to music, and many are the strange devices that come under their category of musical instruments. These natives of [country withheld] have apparently expended much imagination upon their inventions, but, judging from the somewhat pathetic expressions on their faces, the weird noises produced are not altogether satisfactory.”
A simple photograph of a native on horseback provokes what seems to me an unwarranted attack on an entire ethnic group.
“Of their many, old formidable qualities the [ethnic group withheld] retain but few; their extraordinarily fine horsemanship has, however, in no way diminished – undoubtedly due to their inherent laziness, for they appear to be unwilling to use their own legs.”
The book is divided into “five volumes in one,” although there is no evidence that this was ever published in any other form. In fact there’s hardly any evidence at all of who published it at all. It’s my guess that Secret Museum of Mankind was published sometime between the two World Wars. Rumor has it that the photographs are almost all pirated from legitimate sources in an attempt to capitalize on the sometimes less than scholarly appeal of the depiction of half-naked native women, strange body modification practices such as tattooing and scarification, and bizarre religious practices such as flagellation and frenzied behavior. The lack of publication information must have made it difficult to sue the publisher for copyright infringement. The only publishing information in the entire book reads, “New York, Manhattan House.” I have personally searched the files of the Copyright Office at the Library of Congress, and can find no further information about this book. Of course, if one’s entire publication consists of pirated content, what’s the point of copyrighting it?
However, I did find a reference to "Manhattan House" in the Copyright Office's card catalog. Although it doesn't specifically mention Secret Museum of Mankind, it is interesting to note that the only publication that was registered was a pamphlet called "How to Start a Successful Mail Order Business," by Herbert Weimar. If this was indeed the same publishing company, it would be the height of irony that they would protect their own copyright on this publication while infringing on the copyrights of the photographs they used in Secret Museum of Mankind. Here are some images of the cards I found. The second edition includes the name "Herbert Weimar."
More than fifty years after its publication, the book still fascinates. It must have been an extremely popular book, because it is still fairly easy to acquire an original copy on eBay. A paperback reprint was published in 1999, and can be found on Amazon. The book and its title inspired Pat Conte to use it for his series of CDs on ethnic music. For me, the interest in the book is not so much in the pictures as in the ludicrous captions. And I have to wonder how many of the cultures depicted in the book still exist today?
What makes reading the book such a unusual and sometimes exasperating experience is the lack of both an index and pagination. With hundreds of pages and even more photographs, it’s impossible to find a specific one unless you’ve flagged the page somehow. As Churchill once said about Russia, this book is a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Happy reading.
If you are interested in more about this book, visit Ian Macky's site on the Secret Museum of Mankind. A complete digital version of the book, with a sample of the advertisements for the book, and some theories about where the images came from.
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