Museum Studies Blog

Posted on May 26th, 2023 in Book Reviews, Student Work by Laura Holzman | Tags:

Prophets and Ghosts: The Story of Salvage Anthropology by Samuel J. Redman. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2021.


Cover: Prophets and Ghosts in HARDCOVERGripping the nation from the very formation of the field of anthropology was the idea that Native peoples were disappearing, requiring white scientists to save their languages and material culture from a doomed nonexistence. Many of today’s museum collections have their origins in this concept of salvage anthropology. Samuel J. Redman’s Prophets and Ghosts: The Story of Salvage Anthropology examines the history of salvage anthropology, the key figures involved in its formation and continuation, and how the movement has evolved and continues to impact today’s museums, anthropologists, and Native communities and individuals. Redman works at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst as a Professor of History. He has published two other works examining similar topics within the history of museum work. In Prophets and Ghosts, he highlights the pervasiveness of the salvage movement by exploring multiple lines of evidence, arguing that salvage anthropology was not a brief chapter in the history of anthropology but rather an underlying theme which survived into the mid-twentieth century and is still alive today in some forms. He explores the consequences of the movement, intended and unintended, which have had both heartbreaking and surprising outcomes. Because of his expert analysis on the deeply engrained role of salvage anthropology, Redman’s history of salvage anthropology is an essential read for anthropologists and museum professionals practicing today.

Redman structures his argument largely coinciding with the linear progression of salvage anthropology, from the eighteenth century onward. He highlights the history of the movement, the federal government’s role, the contributions of art, examines the case study of salvage anthropology in California, and concludes with the modern manifestations of salvage anthropology with a heavy emphasis on Native perspectives. Throughout the book, he examines key figures involved in the story of salvage anthropology, such as Apache leader Geronimo and anthropologist Franz Boas. He continually references and clarifies the contradictory nature of the salvage anthropology movement. By framing his analysis through multiple elements of professional anthropology and popular culture, he effectively demonstrates how salvage anthropology built the majority of museum collections and why it is important to recognize its role in museums today.

Prophets and Ghosts begins and ends with the stories of Native people. Outside of the prologue, the first figure Redman recognizes in the movement of salvage anthropology is Ely S. Parker, a Seneca leader who was instrumental in some of the first salvage efforts. Redman introduces Lewis Henry Morgan, a well-known anthropologist, through the story of Parker, emphasizing Parker’s role as Morgan’s collaborator in a stark contrast to how Morgan is typically presented. Redman continues this theme throughout the book, naming indigenous individuals wherever possible and highlighting not only the injustices done to them, but also their agency in the salvage anthropology movement. For example, he explores the intricate dynamics behind portraits painted and photographed by white artists and anthropologists of Native people, through the story of Four Bears, a Mandan chief painted by white artist George Catlin. Four Bears brought many of his own personal items associated with his status to be depicted by the painter; Redman emphasizes that “Native sitters [for paintings and photographs] were at least partly capable of shaping how their likeness would be presented” (132). Redman navigates how this presentation was edited – Catlin removed several of Four Bears’ belongings from the painting to curate his own view of authenticity. Maneuvering through these details, Redman tells the story of salvage anthropology not only as something done to Native peoples like passive victims, but a movement that many Native individuals had a level of say in.

At the end of the book, Redman concludes his story of salvage anthropology by discussing the legacy it holds today, both good and bad. He highlights how many modern Americans still believe the core of salvage anthropology, that Native peoples are gone, because of the collections that are housed and displayed in museums. He discusses the return of sacred items stolen by salvage anthropologists to their rightful communities. Most importantly, he explains Native perspectives on the salvage movement today, recognizing the harm of salvage anthropology while exploring its usefulness to tribes and individuals. He discusses how Native artists have used museum collections to inspire or support their artwork; how Tribal Nations have pulled evidence from the publications of white scientists to support their claims for sovereignty; and how language data collected by anthropologists have contributed to language revitalization efforts across North America. Redman explores these intricacies without forgetting the contradictory relationship between systematic, government-sponsored cultural genocide and cultural salvage efforts. By framing salvage anthropology in terms of Native people, Redman effectively analyzes the long-term history of the salvage movement while exploring Native individuals as active agents in its history and legacy. This Native-focused approach makes Prophets and Ghosts an exceptional resource for anthropologists and museum professionals seeking justice for museum collections and inclusivity in museums at large.

The end of the book provides some examples of successful responses to salvage anthropology, such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). However, Redman challenges museum professionals to do more. He touches on the failures of NAGPRA and emphasizes that healing from the legacy of the salvage movement may not even be possible; however, he encourages museum professionals to focus on how they can recognize the history of their collections and work transparently toward reconciliation. Among the first steps to reconciliation is understanding the intricate and pervasive legacy of salvage anthropology. For any museum professional or anthropologist hoping to build an ethical and progress-oriented career, Prophets and Ghosts is an excellent guide to recognizing and reconciling with salvage anthropology.


Sara Polk is a graduate student in the Applied Anthropology program at Indiana University  IUPUI. She currently studies public archaeology in the Midwest and settlement patterns in late Precontact Native communities of the Eastern Woodlands region. Connect with her via email at or on LinkedIn.