Reading Haddon …

Four years ago, I was given the job of finding out what exactly was going on in the Dublin Anthropometric Laboratory, which was established in TCD in 1891. My research has focussed on the Laboratory’s programme of ethnographic surveys in the west of Ireland, which were conducted by “head-hunters” Alfred Cort Haddon and Charles R. Browne between 1892 and 1900.

The main question is this: what do the surveys tell us about the development of (1) social documentary photography in Ireland and (2) a western imaginary based on island life in the west of Ireland? My research also considers the ethical and practical implications of placing material from the laboratory–including anatomical specimens–into the public domain, especially in the context of debates about the relation between body, image, and identity in contemporary Ireland.


BBC Northern Ireland on location in “Old” Anatomy TCD in 2018. Brendan Holland and Martina Hennessy, TCD School of Medicine, discuss the relevance of historic anatomical/anthropological specimens to current medical research (see the Giant Gene)


Four years on the project is entering its final phase. The tricky task of converting extensive  work on primary sources in Dublin and Cambridge is well underway and slowly taking shape as a text. This text is structured around the idea of murderous, little facts from the hidden spaces of anthropology in Ireland. These facts have produced some interesting results; not least the need for some radical new thinking about the history of anthropology as a whole.


Ugly Little Facts: Aidan Baker, Librarian of the Haddon Library in Cambridge, with a collection of papers relating to the Aran Islands. The documents were placed in an envelope in 1913 and “lost.” They were rediscovered in 2013 in a search for Haddon’s notes and/or other papers relating to “The Ethnography of the Aran Islands, County Galway” (Haddon &  Browne 1893). 


Murderous Little Facts

The origin of this trope–ugly little facts–comes from an unlikely source. Thomas Henry Huxley is credited with coining the phrase in a conversation recalled by Francis Galton in his memoirs (1908).  Herbert Spencer revealed in conversation that he once wrote a tragedy. Huxley declared that the ‘catastrophe had to be a ‘beautiful theory killed by a nasty ugly little fact.’

My theory–or historiographical framework perhaps–is that the disciplinary history of anthropology operates around a foundational trope. Haddon is represented as taking anthropology out of the armchair and into the field in 1898; after he had escaped from the Darwinian backwater that was Dublin in the 1890s. That claim is not supported by facts in the Haddon papers and related sources but, repeated often enough, it has become a form of disciplinary folklore that has compressed the history of anthropology and circumscribed narratives like that of the  Dublin Anthropometric Laboratory.


Reading Haddon: A small section of the Haddon Papers in Cambridge University Library.


The strategy I have adopted in response is to use overlooked primary sources as “tropocidal” facts; using ugly, little facts gleaned from the forgotten spaces of anthropology to kill off the armchair trope and suggest some alternative narratives. The Dublin Anthropometric Laboratory, in this scenario,  becomes  (1) the site of a  struggle for disciplinary authority between conservative (biological) and radical (sociological) elements within “organised” anthropology in the 1890s, (2) an agent of the development of an equally radical, photo-ethnographic practice in fieldwork associated with the Laboratory and (3) the starting point for John Millington Synge’s exploration of peasant life in the West of Ireland.



Photography as ethnography: a photograph taken by Browne on the Great Blasket Island in 1897.  The man in the middle is Tomás Ó Criomhtain, An tOileánach, one of the most celebrated figures of the Blasket Island Community and an important figure in folklore studies in Ireland. Photograph courtesy of the Board of TCD.


Forgotten Spaces

This study is  grounded in the discovery of artefacts,  records, and photographs associated with the Dublin Anthropometric Laboratory, which prompted a new reading of Haddon’s association with it. In 2014 Siobhán Ward of TCD started unpacking tea chests containing a substantial collection of historical material from the School of Anatomy.  This material included specimens, instruments, records, paper and a spectacular collection of glass plate negatives dating from 1890. This material had ‘disappeared’ in 1948 when it was placed in long-term storage under the theatre in the “Old” Anatomy Building.

Reconstruction of the anthropological collection began in February 2016 and the contents of the tea chests have since been recorded, sorted, and tallied with related material in other collections in Ireland and UK. It wasn’t long before a gap opened up between the conventional history of pre-modern anthropology in Ireland and the ugly little facts —documentary and material— that had  emerged from “Old” Anatomy.


“Unpacking” the Dublin Anthropometric Laboratory in 2016. An early photograph showing the anatomical and anthropological material discovered in the “Old” Anatomy building in 2014. The records of the Laboratory and associated artefacts are visible in the foreground. They include the schedules of measurements taken in the Aran Islands in 1892, Daniel J. Cunningham’s cast of the cranial topography of a chimpanzee, and some of the psychometric instruments designed by Francis Galton.


Finally …

Unpacking” the Laboratory has become, unexpectedly, a confrontation with the historiography of anthropology. This has meant spending just over two years reading what Haddon wrote – rather than reading about what Haddon was thought to have done – and this  has produced some interesting new narratives.


This part of the project will conclude in 2019 … hopefully.


Ciarán Walsh | Oct 3, 2018