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The “Natural History Court” had two organising themes.

First, ethnology – a speciality in anthropology emphasising comparisons between human cultures – was a new discipline in the 1850s. Displays included material from thirteen exotic human groups (and sometimes living visitors from those groups, too). Robert Gordon Latham’s guide emphasises what visitors could not see displayed, such as language and religious practices. He also shows his discipline’s obsession with rankings – one culture against another – together with the cultural biases inherent in that work.

Second, zoology and botany were represented by regional displays. Edward Forbes was a naturalist in the tradition of Alexander von Humboldt. This catalogue mentions most of the specimens displayed. It also stresses fundamental principles of biogeography. Written five years before Darwin’s Origin of Species, it nicely shows how naturalists theorized before evolutionary ideas took hold.

Complete facsimile of 1854 original.

Natual History Department 1854 Gallery map


Robert Gordon Latham (1812-1888) was an ethnologist focusing on comparative physical and cultural anthropology.

Edward Forbes (1815-1854) was a naturalist, with wide-ranging interests in marine biology, geology, and botany. He died shortly after this chapter was written.


Latham, Robert Gordon and Edward Forbes. 2013 [1854]. Natural History Department of the Crystal Palace Described. Part 1: Ethnology (by Robert Gordon Latham). Part 2: Zoology and Botany (by Edward Forbes). (London: Euston Grove Press), 94 pages. Complete facsimile of 1854 original.

ISBN: 978-1-906267-22-3 (paperback)
ISBN10: 1-906267-22-7 (paperback)
Recommended price: £12.95 | USD$18.95
dimensions: 8.3 x 5.8 (inches)
dimensions: 210 x 148 (mm)


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Further information

Sadiah Qureshi has written excellent work on the sorts of ethnographic displays as produced in the Crystal Palace, for example in her book Peoples on Parade: Exhibitions, Empire and Anthropology in Nineteenth-Century Britain (University of Chicago Press, 2011). and in her paper, ‘Robert Gordon Latham, Displayed Peoples and the Natural History of Race, 1854–1866’, Historical Journal, 54 (2011), 143–166. Highly recommended.

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