Rare anthropology collection opens to public during "Museum Night"

Photo: Hrdlicka Museum of Man

On Saturday, June 17th, some forty museums and galleries around Prague opened their doors to the public for the third "Museum Night". Among other things, this publicity event enables visitors to see collections which are normally not easily accessible - such as The Hrdlicka Museum of Man in Prague 2 which we visited for this edition of Czech Science.

Spread over a humble 130 square metres, you can see skeletons and bones documenting the evolution of humans, as well as the diversity of humankind. Other parts of the collection show growth abnormalities and diseases and injuries that left their marks on human bones. Quite bizarre are also several artificially deformed skulls of ancient European and North American cultures and there are also examples of natural as well as artificial mummification. The perfect place for a night-time visit...

The idea to open such a museum was conceived almost a hundred years ago by an illustrious scholar of Czech extraction, Ales Hrdlicka, but few Czechs today know his name. Bozena Skvarilova is the curator of the Hrdlicka Museum of Man.

"Dr Ales Hrdlicka was a world-renowned anthropologist. He was born in 1869 in the town of Humpolec and died in 1943 in Washington, DC. When he was 13, his family left for the United States where he later studied medicine. He then took interest in psychiatry which drew him eventually to anthropology. He went to Paris to study under the direction of Professor Manouvrier."

After his return to the United States, Hrdlicka accepted an unpaid position at the American Museum of Natural History and participated in a number of studies of the Indians of the American Southwest and northern Mexico. In 1910 he became curator at the Division of Physical Anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History, part of the Smithsonian Institute, where he stayed for four decades.

"Dr Hrdlicka achieved international acclaim in two fields. Firstly, he was interested in the indigenous inhabitants of America and secondly he tried to answer the question where humans came from, how we had evolved biologically, whether we had a common origin."

During his forty years with the Smithsonian Institute, Ales Hrdlicka compiled the most complete collection of human bone material in the world. He travelled extensively around North America, mainly in Alaska, where he gathered material and also carried out excavations.

"As concerns human evolution, in 1926 he was awarded with the 'Huxley Memorial Medal of the Royal Anthropological Institute' for his writings on the Neanderthal Phase of Man. Today we know it is a complicated story but in those days it was extremely important because he actually pronounced one vital thesis: and that is that all humans have one common ancestor. No one is superior and all people are equal."

Hrdlicka was one of the first scientists to argue that Native Americans originated in Asia and came across the Bering Strait.

Curator Bozena Skvarilova says that despite his international career, Ales Hrdlicka did not forget his old homeland and devoted much attention and a lot of money to the new Czechoslovak state between the two world wars. And that's how the Hrdlicka Museum of Man came to being.

"While president Tomas Masaryk was staying in the US, Dr Hrdlicka became acquainted with him which we know from letters the two exchanged. In March, 1929, Hrdlicka sent Masaryk a birthday greeting which starts and I quote: 'Dear Mr President and friend'. He writes about his dream that his motherland should have a museum of man telling all there was to know at that time. So he donated a million crowns on condition that the state secures a decent home."

In 1937 a first temporary museum was opened in the newly built university campus at Albertov in Prague and was named the Hrdlicka Museum of Man.

"97 percent of the collection was gathered between the world wars. A large part of it was a gift by Hrdlicka and he also funded trips by Czech anthropologists to study indigenous peoples in Africa and America and observe their way of life. The Hrdlicka Museum of Man is actually a university collection divided into two parts - exhibitions that are open to the public and a depository for study and research purposes. There are about 4,000 exhibits stored here, many of them unique, such as Hrdlicka's collection of facial mask casts and sculptures of heads of North American Indians and busts of Africans by sculptor Frantisek Foit."

The Hrdlicka Musem of Man is located on the premises of the Faculty of Science of Charles University in Prague 2 and is open to the public on Wednesdays.