Looking at Ourselves: Rethinking the Sculptures of Malvina Hoffman

Category: Exhibitions

Exhibition Summary

Included with Basic admission

Closes Feb 3, 2019

All ages

Included with Basic admission

Closes Feb 3, 2019

All ages

About the Exhibit

Explore the concept of race through sculpture.

In the early 1930s, the Field Museum commissioned sculptor Malvina Hoffman to create bronze sculptures for an exhibition called The Races of Mankind. Hoffman, who trained under Auguste Rodin, traveled to many parts of the world for an up-close look at the “racial types” her sculptures were meant to portray.

By the time the exhibition was deinstalled more than 30 years later, more than 10 million people had seen it—as well as its misguided message that human physical differences could be categorized into distinct “races.”

Today, 50 of Hoffman’s sculptures are back on display—with a new narrative—in Looking at Ourselves: Rethinking the Sculptures of Malvina Hoffman. This exhibition closely examines the nuance and beauty that defines the person and inspiration behind each sculpture.

Looking at Ourselves takes a hard look at the 1933 exhibition. More than 80 years later, our cultural and scientific notions of race have changed—but the consequences of racial ideologies persist.

No alt exists for this image

Stanley Field was president of the Museum when he sent a telegram to sculptor Malvina Hoffman to gauge her interest in creating models of “racial types” based on world travels. Hoffman, intrigued by the prospect, agreed to show two sculptures to Field and won the commission.

In 1933, the Field Museum debuted an exhibition called The Races of Mankind. The exhibition featured artist Malvina Hoffman’s 104 bronze statues of people from around the world as illustrations of “racial types.”

Identifying sculptures by name

Not only do Hoffman’s detailed sculptures embody the complicated ways we look at culture and race, but they are also nuanced portraits of individual persons from around the world.

In her letters from the field, Hoffman told museum curators that she wanted to illustrate the dignity and individuality of each of her subjects. 

The Looking at Ourselves exhibition team believed that naming Hoffman’s previously unnamed subjects was an important way of illustrating that individuality. They spent months poring over Hoffman’s and her husband’s letters and journals, and consulting the work of others who have researched the Hoffman collection over the years, to find the subjects’ given names. 

For subjects whose specific identities remain unknown, the team worked with anthropologists to correctly pinpoint the names of their ethnic groups.

Conservation of Sculptures

Before going on display, Hoffman’s sculptures underwent extensive conservation treatment (visitors couldn’t keep their hands off them). Conservators began work in 2013, gently removing decades’ worth of skin oils, soap, and dust, without harming the artist’s original work.

It took the conservation team 18 months to restore a total of 85 sculptures from the original exhibition. Looking at Ourselves features 50 of them on display.

A conservator uses a brush to treat a bronze bust created by Malvina Hoffman. The back of another bust is visible in the foreground.

Conservation Assistant Allison Cassidy treats a bust portraying a woman from Sudan, created by artist Malvina Hoffman. 

Karen Bean

Discover More At The Field