Museum Discusses Policy Formed Through Scientific Racism

Eugenics, the study of decreasing the likelihood of occurrence of what are perceived as undesirable traits among a population of humans, is most often represented in the museum field through the context of the Holocaust. A narrative less likely to be shown is that of Charles Davenport, an American scientist who is credited as being one of the leading forces in implementing eugenics practices. Today, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Laurel Hollow, New York is known for its scientists leading research in cancer therapies and molecular biology. During the time that Charles Davenport served as its director beginning in 1904, Cold Spring Harbor Lab hosted the Eugenics Record Office, where researchers created the correlation that disabilities and undesirable behaviors could be linked to one’s genetics and that those genes were more likely to be found in members of specific races and classes.  This pseudoscience led to forced sterilization, incarcerate, and the barring of immigrants from entering the country due to their race.[i]

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Record keepers at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in the 1920s- Image Courtesy of the Dolan DNA Learning Center

From October 2014 to March 2015 the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at New York University exhibited Haunted Files: The Eugenics Record Office. Curated by John Kuo Wei Tchen and Noah Fuller, this interactive gallery space transported visitors to the year 1924 and allowed them to step into the office of Charles Davenport. From the desks to the filing cabinets to the period accurate decorations, everything in the room had been selected to represent what would have been found in the Eugenics Record Office, including the records themselves. Visitors were encouraged to open the desk drawers and sort through the filing cabinets where they would find notes, graphs, and photographs that were used to support lawmakers in “bettering” society through racist policies.[ii]

Hidden Files included a focus on anti-Asian policy formed from the Eugenics movement. While Asian-Americans were not the primary focus of Charles Davenport, the lab still collected studies done on Asian-Americans and served as advisors to west coast policy makers, where Asian immigration was concentrated. The Eugenics Record Office partnered with organizations such as Stanford University in California to spread eugenics legislation across the country. Throughout the 1920s, researchers subjected Chinese-American and Japanese-American in public schools to intelligence and personality tests to determine if they had a place in their perception of white society. These tests mainly focused around assimilation and were fixed to set the children up for failure from the start. The idea was to prove Asians to be an inferior race that would breed undesirable characteristics into American society. The results were then used to support policies banning Japanese immigrants from the right to own land, vote, or run for office in California. “Evidence” from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory led to the passing of the Immigration Act of 1924, banning the admittance of Asians and Arabs from the United States. Throughout the exhibit, these racist ideas that were turned into policy were traced through history to contemporary policies still affecting individuals today.[iii]

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Stina Nielson and Antu Yacob perform “Unheard Voices”- Courtesy of hauntedfiles.org

Starting in 2015, the Hidden Files exhibit hosted a number of programs focused on performance art. Artists were invited to produce and execute new works with content related to eugenics in America. The purpose of these performances was not to just teach history, but to connect history to the legacy that it has left behind. Themes centered around the concepts of race, identity, migration, and assimilation. Unheard Voices, written by Judy Tate and Michael Slade and performed by Antu Yacob and Stina Nielson, imagines contrasting dialogues of a record keeper at the Eugenics Record Office and an Afro-Asian-American woman forced to live in a state home. “A Poet’s Psalm for Mismeasured” written and performed by Cara Page confronts labels applied to individuals against their will. Paul Tran performed a poem, “Tell Me What Killed You”, remembering 300,000 infants in Vietnam who were used for Tuberculosis testing. All of these performances were followed by the questions, “how have times changed?”  and “How does this still impact us today?”  The Asian/Pacific/American Institute organized a two-day seminar, gathering artists and scholars to meet with members of the public to discuss these questions and brainstorm ways to make changes today.[iv]

While the exhibition has closed, most of the content used for the exhibit and the performances staged in the gallery space can still be found on the exhibition website, http://hauntedfiles.org/. Exhibits like Haunted Files explore the idea of a race or ethnicity being classified as perpetually disabled through genetics, an outdated concept used to manipulate policy. This is a reminder of the continuously changing definition of “disability”, a perceived term that is often applied by society rather than by the abilities and self-identification of an individual

[i] http://library.cshl.edu/personal-collections/charles-b-davenport

[ii] http://hauntedfiles.org/

[iii] Palter, David, Testing for Race: Stanford University, Asian Americans, and Psychometric Testing in California, 1920-1935, University of California, 2014

[iv] http://hauntedfiles.org/resources#A

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