The Changing Field of Anthropology at the Time of the St. Louis Exposition

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The Changing Field of Anthropology at the Time of the St. Louis Exposition


By Madison Adams 

A paradigm shift in anthropology occurred during the turn of the last century, which reflected a change in the way anthropologists thought about race. Here I discuss, William McGee head of the Department of Anthropology and organizer of exhibits at the Fair and the lesser known ethnographer Laura Watson Benedict to illustrate this shift. Evidence is found in their representations of the Bagobo people. McGee, a proponent of unilinear evolution and 19th-century anthropological thought, used the Bagobo to represent the idea of the uncivilized “little brown brother” as object of United States imperial intervention[1].

To create this illusion of the Bagobo as the primitive other, McGee scheduled Bagobo ritual dances every half hour[2]. Men dressed in traditional garments, preformed for Fair audiences each day between 9:30 and 5[3]. Interpreters explained the significance of the intricate textiles, their colors and the dance[4]. The shorts pictured show the skill of Bagobo craftspeople in making textiles, and came to the University of Iowa collection from St. Louis in 1904. The line between informed explanations and colonial propaganda blurred though the Bagobo camp as Fair organizers emphasized their spiritual ritual dances in a dehumanizing manner[5].

In contrast, Laura Watson Benedict spent 14 months with the Bagobo people during 1906-1907. She worked to demonstrate the vibrancy of the Bagobo culture by collecting Bagobo material items and published Study of Bagobo Ceremonial, Magic and Myth in 1916[6]. Franz Boas, a proponent of cultural relativism, and critic of linear evolution, influenced Benedict’s perspective[7]. Benedict put these beliefs in practice in the field by depicting sacred events like cannibalism in cultural context[8]. She attempted to understand and explain not to condemn.

Although McGee and Benedict worked concurrently, their perspectives produced different representations of the Bagobos. McGee’s view served the imperial project, by attempting to shape the public’s opinion about race. Benedict’s view valued the Bagobo people according to their own cultural standards and used cultural relativism to describe a culture different than her own.

[1] W.J. McGee, “Anthropology at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition.” American Association for the Advancement of Science 22, no. 573 (1905):  825

[2] Jose D. Fermin, 1904 World’s Fair: the Filipino Experience (Diliman, Quezon City: The University of the Philippines Press, 2004), 132.

[3] Ibid., 132

[4] Ibid., 132

[5] Ibid., 153.

[6] Jay H. Bernstein, “The Perils of Laura Watson Benedict: A Forgotten Pioneer in Anthropology.” Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society 13, No. 3 (September 1985):191.

[7] Ibid., 175.

[8] Laura Watson Benedict A Study of Bagobo Ceremonial Magic and Myth. New York, 1914.








Madison Adams


Madison Adams




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Madison Adams , “The Changing Field of Anthropology at the Time of the St. Louis Exposition,” History Corps, accessed April 20, 2018,