chapter  11
16 Pages

e Fate of the Beaded Babies: Forgotten Early Colonial Anatomy

Historical anatomical collections in Leiden, Utrecht, Amsterdam, Groningen and St Petersburg include wet preparations of human foetuses decorated with strings of coloured beads (see Plate 5).1 There is no such thing as a preserved ‘unadorned foetus’; every preservation and display of a human foetus reflects assumptions that are deeply tied to specific peoples and times and yield clues to cultural assumptions.2 However, these beaded babies are adorned in a very distinct manner, which should make it easier to follow the clues they give us. Although their exact origins are largely mysterious, it is clear that these preparations were originally understood as examples of African and Asian human anatomy.3 Collected in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, these preparations are uncomfortable reminders of a fairly recent colonial past. For much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, these beaded babies were forgotten or ignored. Now, in the twenty-first century, the museums that currently own the preparations have developed various ways of dealing with them, from continuing to ignore them, to displaying them as top items or boxing them up and admitting their problematic nature. I would argue that controversial human remains like the beaded babies should be studied and discussed, even if their histories are largely unclear, in order to gain an understanding of them and to enable us to take informed decisions about their future. This piece

1 Andreas Bonn and Sebald Justinus Brugmans, beaded babies, c. 1750-c. 1819, Leiden, Anatomical Museum, Leiden University Medical Center, Al0037, Al0038, Al0041, Al0044, Al0045, Al0040; Frederik Ruysch, beaded baby, c. 1700, St Petersburg, Kunstkamera, MAE RAS, no. 4070-817; Gerardus Vrolik, beaded baby, c. 1800-1859, Amsterdam, Museum Vrolik, Amsterdam Medical Center; Jan Bleuland, beaded baby, s.d., Utrecht, Universiteitsmuseum Utrecht; Pieter de Riemer, beaded baby, c. 1800, Groningen, Universiteitsmuseum Groningen, E0607.