April 18th, 2018.   10:00am - 2:00pm


Face Cast Lab
National Museum of Natural History of the Smithsonian Institute
April 18th, 2018. 10:00am - 2:00pm

Why and how did natural history museums create plaster casts of faces? ...


Why and how did natural history museums create plaster casts of faces? The NMNH Anthropology Department, in collaboration with the public art program Parkeology asked these questions at Face Cast Lab. As an extension of our 2016 program Facing Artifacts, we explored the technical processes behind how human faces were replicated and used for anthropological research in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Staged in Q?rius, The Coralyn W. Whitney Science Education Center, Face Cast Lab technicians demonstrated on live models the step-by-step procedures of creating copies of the human face with alginate and plaster. The public and Smithsonian staff were invited to visit and witness this process unfold, and to participate in the Lab's ongoing research about how we are understood and remembered through artifacts of our bodies.

Many participants were linked to the museum, such as staff members, interns, or contractors. Others, such as Smithsonian Research Fellow Larry Taylor or Tristan Ahtone, were family members of people who had been cast by early 20th century anthropologists. Journalist Tristan Ahtone, descendent of Beah-ko, a Kiowa warrior who was cast while a prisoner of war in Fort Marion, Florida, gave a presentation about his personal research and relationship to this complex legacy.

Each person had the option to personally keep their face cast or to add it to the collections of the National Museum of Natural History. Most participants chose to donate their faces to the museum, and what color they wanted their plaster to be patinated. This new collection became a physical track record of those who shared a link to the institution’s history of the management and research of identity.



Parkeology Director Kate Clark

National Museum of Natural History Curator of North American Ethnology Gwyneira Isaac

National Museum of Natural History Collections Manager David Hunt

National Museum of Natural History Experience Design Manager, Anthropology Education Liaison Colleen Popson

Smithsonian Research Fellow Larry Taylor

Journalist Tristan Ahtone

Graduate students of The George Washington University Anthropology and Museum Studies Program: Kelsey Adams, Heater Ashe, Katie L.Benz, Delaney Cummings, David Gassett, Francine Margolis, Hannah Padulo, Amanda Quink, Emily Somberg

Artist Jeszi McPeak

Artist Diana Benavidez

Videographer Mazin Harb