World Expositions as Transimperial Nodal Points and/or Dead Ends: Bogdanov in Paris (1878) and Rostock´s Anatomy in Chicago (1893)


In 1893, the Anatomical Institute of the University of Rostock, by the German Baltic Sea Coast, participated in the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and was awarded a bronze medal, as well as a certificate for its exhibition of “preparations of the human skeletal elements”.[1] The certificate has recently been rediscovered in the collection of that very institute and its visual language speaks all too well to the colonial self-understanding of the Empires of the time.

(The illustrations on the certificate accompanying the bronze medal awarded to Rostock´s Anatomy abound with colonial symbolism: At the bottom Christopher Columbus ships the four continents to Chicago – with “civilized” Europe in the first seat. At the top left, America leans on a bison, praising three children at the top right, symbolizing the future “races” of America. While the white child owns symbols of civilization (book and hammer), the Black one holds a twig of cotton, and the native American carries the bow of a hunter and gatherer. Photo: Anna-Maria Begerock, Institute for Anatomy, Rostock University Medical Centre, Germany)

Historians have shown that world expositions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were systematically advancing notions of colonialism, empire, and racial hierarchies. The history of these giant expositions starts with the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace in London’s Hyde Park in 1851. After its immense success, international expositions became a frequent event in Western European and American cities, with Paris alone staging expositions universelles in 1855, 1867, 1878, 1889, and 1900. For Robert Rydell, these world fairs put “the nations and people of the world on display for comparative purposes”.[2] This was particularly obvious in the establishment of “primitive” colonial villages at the 1889 Paris exhibition and followed by ethnographical displays at succeeding world expositions, which highlighted the contrast to the displays of European and North American “progress.” At Chicago’s world fair, anthropologists created similar racialized narratives of civilization and progress: approaching along the Midway Plaisance, visitors would not only pass amusements like the Ferris Wheel, but also ethnographic villages of “primitive” peoples before entering the so-called White City where technological, cultural, scientific, and other “white” achievements were presented in fourteen so-called Great Buildings. Visitors strolling the exhibition grounds would thus be able to observe different “racial types” presented by peoples from many regions of the world illustrating the evolution of humankind from “primitivism” to “civilization,” all to convey the message that some “races” were meant to rule the world, while inferior “races” were to be disciplined or had to face extinction.[3]

But while global expositions clearly advanced a racialized colonial worldview, they were also transnational and transimperial events. Scholars have characterized these world fairs as “knots in what together constituted a worldwide web.”[4] For historian Emily S. Rosenberg, they were “the most important nodes in the transnational currents of this period,” despite their “seemingly local and ephemeral nature.”[5] With thousands of exhibitors from all over the world and millions of visitors, global fairs were obvious places of exchange across national and imperial boundaries. This became even more true with the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where Rostock’s Anatomy participated. Here, a new element was introduced: a World Congress of experts.[6] It brought together several new groups of professionals that would subsequently create their own transnational “epistemic communities,” as Rosenberg summarizes.[7]

In this essay, we will take a closer look at two specific contributions to world fairs in the field of anthropology: Rostock’s already mentioned participation in Chicago in 1893 and the visit of Russian anthropologist Anatoly Bogdanov to the Paris exposition universelle of 1878. We will argue that only one of them triggered new transimperial connections, while the other was unsuccessful in leaving a mark. We thus use these examples to remind us of the potential and limits of transimperial approaches.

1. A transimperial nodal point: Anatoly Bogdanov and the 1878 exposition universelle in Paris

Scientists in the Russian Empire too appreciated world exhibitions as world-spanning means of presentations of new “breakthrough discoveries” and technologies, as well as places of exchange with various colleagues from other countries. In 1867, the Society of Devotees of Natural Science, Anthropology, and Ethnography (OLEAE) organized a Russian Ethnographic Exhibition in Moscow.[8] It was such a success that it was decided to arrange a new, even more extensive one. In 1873, a special committee was put to the task of organizing it. One of the organizers was Anatoly Bogdanov, professor at the then Moscow Imperial University.[9] As an anthropologist, he had earned a reputation far beyond the borders of his native Russia, amassing a large collection of skulls from excavations in various parts of what was the Central Russian Empire, as well as from Central Asia, and adjacent China. The largest collections were established at his workplace, in the Institute and Museum of Anatomy at Moscow Imperial University.

To publicize the idea of a new World Fair, he was sent to Germany and France in 1878 to invite foreign colleagues, to order some exhibits for the new exposition and to enlarge the Russian collections.[10] He welcomed the possibility to attend the Paris exposition universelle of 1878, where Russian scientists also set up an anthropological department which was highly appreciated by foreign colleagues. There, Bogdanov presented skulls and their replicas from the kurgans,[11] his area of interest, which was not easily accessible for researchers from other parts of the world, for example Germany. The replicas Bogdanov presented, were made of paper-mâché, a material that allowed for great precision and was easy to produce on a large scale at low cost.

(In order to allow his colleagues to also conduct concise anthropological studies of various skulls found in the Russian empire, Bogdanov sent paper mâché copies to various European collections. This particular label is from such a copy sent by Bogdanov to Berlin, still in the collection of the BGAEU. Photo: Barbara Teßmann)

Following his presentation in Paris, Bogdanov sent his replicas of his “Russian skulls” to his international colleagues, for instance to Florence where they served anthropologists’ craniological measurements.[12] Berlin also received a batch of replicas, where famous German anthropologist Rudolf Virchow praised them for their excellent quality, fidelity to the original, and manufacturing, at a 1878 Berlin meeting of the Berlin Society for Ethnology, Anthropology and Prehistory (BGAEU).[13] While Berlin received replicas, the University of Freiburg was given four original skulls from the kurgans of the Russian Empire.[14] The collection of the BGAEU does hold these skull replicas until today.

Back home, Bogdanov and other Russian scientists started preparing the Russian Anthropological exhibition, which was held from April to September 1879. Scheduled to take place at the same time was the International Anthropological Congress, where many famous scientists from all over the world participated with presentations of their latest achievements in the field. Among those attending were the top scientists of the time: P. Broca, A. Quatrefages, G. Mortillet, P. Topinard, and others.[15] Russia’s earlier anthropological presentation at the exposition universelle in 1878, the contacts Bogdanov had established there, and most probably also the interest awoken by the replicas he sent, had helped to secure the interest of these international scholars and thus helped to make the Russian Anthropological exhibition a success.

In the aftermath, and upon Bogdanov’s instigation, the Anthropological Museum was founded in Moscow, with the aim to be able to present the exhibition’s “objects”, including of course, the skulls and their replicas.[16] Today the collection comprises 90,000 human remains, i.e., skulls, individual bones and postcranial skeletons, also of European individuals. These human remains are still used for anthropological teaching and research.[17]

As this example shows, world fairs did serve as nodes in transnational networks also in the field of anthropology and race science. They were places where experts networked and initiated cooperations, where they exchanged knowledge and objects, and contributed to an image of a world of empires ordered according to racial hierarchies. In this sense, world expositions could be transimperial nodal points.

2. The dead end: Rostock´s Anatomical Institute and the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago

In 1887, Hans Friedrich was a doctoral candidate at the Anatomical Institute at the University of Rostock. Following a call of the medical faculty of his alma mater, he began to search for a method to determine volume differences of the medullary cavities of human bones. Earlier studies, focusing on weight and volume differences, had not led to good scientific results. Finally, Friedrich filled the cavities of his test “material”, bones of two white (!) men of different ages, with Wood’s metal liquid; after cooling the metal and removing the cortical bone with caustic potash (maceration), he could then determine the volume. He found larger voids in older bones which he ascribed to osteoporosis. Having concentrated on the longest long bone and other lower limb bones, he held back somewhat on an overall interpretation, but tried to extrapolate the volume differences to the entire skeleton.[18] Convinced of Friedrich’s findings, his supervisor, Professor Albert von Brunn, sent the bones and his study to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.[19] Obviously, his instincts were right, as the “Anatomisches Institut der Universität Rostock” won a bronze medal for this exhibit.

In all likelihood, Friedrich’s study was thought to be merely the starting point for further studies, like the extension of his method to “white” (e.g. female) bones. Later, like other anthropological studies in its time, it was probably thought to be applied to other “races”. Friedrich had started his experiment with bones of two white males. However, his professor, von Brunn, did anthropological teaching and anatomical training in the spirit of his time: anatomical knowledge served the comparison of races. He had prepared an Australian skeleton[20], and had examined Peruvian mummy heads and skulls as well as the skeleton of a “Filipino”.[21] Thus, it seems only natural that von Brunn would have tested his doctoral student’s technique on other “races”, in order to determine volume differences for each “race”. However, Brunn died in 1895 before following up on Friedrich’s work and Friedrich moved on to different fields of interest.

Did the presentation in Chicago trigger any further engagement with Rostock’s method of bone measurements? Certainly, the World’s Columbian Exposition would have been the right place for this. What is known today as “the greatest of all American world fairs”[22] took place from May 1st to October 30th in 1893. With over 250,000 objects displayed by around 65,000 exhibitors from 46 nations[23], and over 28 million visitors[24], the World’s Columbian Exhibition outshined all previous world fairs. Celebrating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World in 1492, it exhibited everything from the latest advances in science and technology to spectacular attractions. Here, the first dishwasher was presented, a fully electrified kitchen, Bell presented the possibility of long-distance calls and visitors were entertained with an amusement park, circus performances, and an artificial ice rink for skaters, to name just a few. Out of the over 5,000 German exhibitors, Krupp had the largest exhibit.[25] There was a German university exhibition which for the first time provided a comprehensive overview of recent research at Germany’s academies, with the University of Rostock being among the participants[26] and “Hagenbeck’s Menagerie” presented a “human zoo”.[27] The organizers aimed to enrich the scientific value of the exhibition with the introduction of scientific conferences, among them a large anthropological congress.[28] In addition, visitors could even test the latest anthropological knowledge on themselves, by getting measured by experts in the anthropological building in the “White City”.[29]

In Rostock, Germany’s participation in the Chicago fair was seen as a big achievement. Rostock’s leading newspaper marvelled: “The result of the award ceremony at the world exhibition in Chicago turned out to be extremely favourable for Germany”.[30] In the Institute for Anatomy, Friedrich’s experiment was most probably seen as a huge success for the university as well, and most of all, for himself and his professor. However, Friedrich’s study did not seem to have had any significant impact in anthropological circles neither at home nor abroad. The objects he created, as well as the certificate he received, are still on display at the Anatomical Institute. But although his findings were published twice in Germany at the time, presented by Professor von Brunn in a scientific talk before the “Naturforschende Gesellschaft zu Rostock” and sent to the Chicago exposition, no citation or reference to his study can be found in other studies.[31] Perhaps what enabled Bogdanov’s success in 1878 was that, as opposed to Friedrich and von Brunn, he attended the Paris exposition in person. He used the occasion to establish contacts with scientific peers that he could draw on for organizing the anthropological congress in Moscow the following year. Not having been in Chicago, Rostock’s anatomists had not had the chance to build similar networks. In the end, it might have been the lack of impact of Friedrich’s study that convinced Dietrich Barfurth, von Brunns successor as professor for anatomy in Rostock, not to participate in the next North American world fair: the 1904 exposition in St. Louis.[32] For Friedrich, von Brunn, and the Anatomical Institute, Chicago was a dead end.


Out of the two examples discussed here, only one underlines that world expositions could be places of networking, of transnational exchanges, and transimperial flows as in the case of Bogdanov and the Paris exposition of 1878. The other shows no such success. Rostock’s award-winning anatomical technique was not applied by international colleagues, nor did it become a standard procedure in anthropological examinations comparing “races”. This serves as a reminder, that it is necessary not only to assume the existence of global or transimperial interconnections where they seem likely, but to empirically verify whether they emerged or not. Or, to cite a seminal article by Frederick Cooper: We need to ask “about the limits of interconnection” as much as we need to interrogate “the specificity of the structures necessary to make connections work”.[33] It is this awareness of the limits of globalization, of the simultaneity of connections and disconnections that has been foregrounded in recent debates about the “futures of global history” and is equally relevant for students of (trans)imperial history.[34]

Further Reading

Karge, Wolf 2015: Mecklenburger zeigen’s der Welt: Die Weltausstellungen in Chicago 1893 und St. Louis 1904, in: Ernst Münch, Mathias Manke (eds.): Kapitäne, Konsul, Kolonisten: Beziehungen zwischen Mecklenburg und Übersee, Lübeck 2015, pp. 405–426.

Мариям Мустафаевна Керимова: Всероссийская выставка 1867 г. – новый этап в развитии этнографической науки [Mariam Mustafaevna Kerimova: The 1867 All-Russian Exhibition – a new stage in the development of ethnographic science], in: Вестник Томского государственного университета 476 (2022), pp. 5–13.

Rosenberg, Emily S.: Transnational Currents in a Shrinking World, in: Emily S. Rosenberg (ed.): A World Connecting, 1870–1945, Cambridge, London 2012.

Rydell, Roberts W.: All the World’s a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876–1916, Chicago, London 1987.

Schumacher, Gert-Horst, Wischhusen, Heinzgünter: Anatomia Rostochiensis: Die Geschichte der Anatomie an der 550 Jahre alten Universität Rostock, Berlin 1907.

* The authors would like to thank Prof. Martin Witt for his kind help with Friedrich’s work, as well as Wolf Karge for supplying important texts and plans from the archives.

[1] During the reconstruction of the building hosting the Anatomical Institute in the 1990s the medal got lost.

[2] Roberts W. Rydell: All the World’s a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876–1916, Chicago, London 1987, p. 5.

[3] Emily S. Rosenberg: Transnational Currents in a Shrinking World, in: Emily S. Rosenberg (ed.): A World Connecting, 1870–1945, Cambridge, London 2012, p. 896; also see Astrid Böger: Envisioning the Nation: The Early American World’s Fairs and the Formation of Culture, Frankfurt a. M., New York 2010, p. 114.

[4] Alexander C. T. Geppert: Fleeting Cities: Imperial Expositions in Fin-de-Siècle Europe, Basingstoke 2010, p. 3.

[5] Rosenberg: Transnational Currents, p. 887.

[6] Anonymus: Unsere Weltausstellung: Eine Beschreibung der Columbischen Weltausstellung in Chicago 1893. Chicago 1894, p. 16.

[7] Rosenberg: Transnational Currents, pp. 895f.

[8] Мариям Мустафаевна Керимова: Всероссийская выставка 1867 г. – новый этап в развитии этнографической науки [Mariam Mustafaevna Kerimova: The 1867 All-Russian Exhibition – a new stage in the development of ethnographic science], in: Вестник Томского государственного университета 476 (2022), pp. 5–13.

[9] Today Moscow State University.

[10] Анатолий Петрович Богданов: Поездка в Германию и Францию летом 1878 года [Anatoly Petrovich Bogdanov: A trip to Germany and France in the summer of 1878], Moscow 1878, p. 7.

[11] Rudolf Virchow: Verhandlungen der Berliner Gesellschaft für Anthropologie, Ethnologie und Urgeschichte, Berlin 1878, pp. 220–256, here p. 221.

[12] G. L. Sera: La successione spaziale e cronologica dei tipi etnici nell’Europa settentrionale ed orientale, in: Archivio per l’Antropologia e la Etnologia 50/fasc. 1–4 (1920), pp. 38–64.

[13] Virchow was the leading anthropologist of the BGAEU at the time. See Virchow: Verhandlungen, p. 221.

[14] Daniel Möller: Die Geschichte der Anthropologischen Sammlung Freiburg, Marburg 2015, p. 51.

[15] Екатерина Исаевна Балахонова: 130 лет Музею антропологии Московского университета имени М. В. Ломоносова: события и люди [Ekaterina Isaevna Balakhonova: 130 years of the Museum of Anthropology of Lomonosov Moscow University: Events and people], in: Вестник Московского университета 23/4 (2013), pp. 1–22.

[16] Дмитрий Николаевич Анучин: Антропологический музей Московского университета [Dmitry Nikolaevich Anuchin: The Anthropological Museum of Moscow University], in: Русский антропологический журнал 12 (1907), pp. 236–247.

[17] See website <> (accessed: 8 January 2024).

[18] Hans Friedrich: Die Markräume der Knochen der Unterextremität eines fünfundzwanzigjährigen und eines zweiundachtzigjährigen Mannes: eine von der Med. Fakultät gekrönte Preisschrift, Rostock 1888; Hans Friedrich: Metall-Ausgüsse der Markhöhlen von den Knochen der Unter-Extremität eines 25jährigen und eines 82jährigen Mannes; hergestellt im Anatomischen Institut zu Rostock, Rostock 1888; Sitzungsbericht der Naturforschenden Gesellschaft zu Rostock, Sitzung am 28. April 1888, in: Archiv des Vereins der Freunde der Naturgeschichte in Mecklenburg 42 (1888), p. XII.

[19] Adolf Wermuth: Amtlicher Bericht über die Weltausstellung in Chicago 1893 erstattet vom Reichskommissar, Vol. 1, Berlin 1894.

[20] Ursula Thiel: Biographie und wissenschaftliches Werk der Ordinarien am Anatomischen Institut zu Rostock von 1789 bis 1921, Dissertation, Universität Rostock, 1965, p. 49.

[21] See Rostocker Zeitung, no. 345, 28.07.1886; Sitzungsbericht der Naturforschenden Gesellschaft zu Rostock, Sitzung am 19. Januar 1888, in: Archiv des Vereins der Freunde der Naturgeschichte in Mecklenburg 42 (1888), pp. III–IV; Sitzungsbericht der Naturforschenden Gesellschaft zu Rostock, Sitzung am 2. Februar 1889, in: Archiv des Vereins der Freunde der Naturgeschichte in Mecklenburg 43 (1889), pp. II–VI.

[22] Chaim M. Rosenberg: America at the Fair: Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, Charleston 2008, p. vi.

[23] Rosenberg: America at the Fair, p. ix

[24] Norman Bolotin, Christine Laing: The World’s Columbian Exposition: The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, Urbana, Chicago 2002, p. vii.

[25] Rosenberg: America at the Fair, p. 239.

[26] Adolf Wermuth: Amtlicher Bericht über die Weltausstellung in Chicago 1893 erstattet vom Reichskommissar, Vol. 2, Berlin 1894, pp. 977, 1005.

[27] Anonymus: Unsere Weltausstellung, pp. 356ff. On “human zoos“ see Pascal Blanchard et al.: MenschenZoos: Schaufenster der Unmenschlichkeit, Hamburg 2012.

[28] Anonymus: Unsere Weltausstellung, p. 16.

[29] Anonymus: Unsere Weltausstellung, p. 176.

[30] Rostocker Zeitung, 4.11.1893, evening issue, p. 1. The newspaper did not report on Rostock´s anatomy being awarded a bronze medal. But the official report states it (Wermuth: Amtlicher Bericht, Vol. 1, Anlage 6, p. 51) and the medal and certificate confirm it as well.

[31] Friedrich: Markräume; Friedrich: Metall-Ausgüsse; Sitzungsbericht der Naturforschenden Gesellschaft zu Rostock, Sitzung am 28. April 1888, in: Archiv des Vereins der Freunde der Naturgeschichte in Mecklenburg 42 (1888), p. XII.

[32] Wolfgang Karge: Mecklenburger zeigen’s der Welt: Die Weltausstellungen in Chicago 1893 und St. Louis 1904, in: Ernst Münch, Mathias Manke (eds.): Kapitäne, Konsul, Kolonisten: Beziehungen zwischen Mecklenburg und Übersee, Lübeck 2015, pp. 405–426, here p. 421f.

[33] Frederick Cooper: What is the Concept of Globalization Good For? An African Historian’s Perspective, in: African Affairs 100 (2001), pp. 189–213, here p. 189.

[34] See Jeremy Adelman: What is Global History Now?, in:, 2.3.2017; Richard Drayton, David Motadel: Discussion: The Future of Global History, in: Journal of Global History 13 (2018), pp. 1–21.

Author profile

Dr Anna-Maria Begerock is a researcher for decontextualized South American mummies and non-European human remains in German collections, for the IECIM (Institute for the Scientific Investigation of Mummies, Madrid, Spain). She also focuses on the role of ancestors for the living.

Recent publications include:

Trauma of bone and soft tissues in South American mummies - new cases provide insight into violence and lethal outcome. (2022, Begerock et al.).

The Ethics of Casts. Plaster Casts of Skulls, Faces and Bodies from Colonial Australia (2023, Begerock, Tocha, Howes)

Author profile

PD Dr. Jonas Kreienbaum is principal investigator of the DFG-funded project "Neoliberal Globalization or 'global disconnect'?" at Free University of Berlin. He studied modern history, philosophy and political science in Berlin and Nottingham and holds a PhD in history from Humboldt University Berlin. In addition to the history of mass violence, and economic decolonization, his research focusses on colonial and imperial history with an emphasis on trans-imperial connections. This is especially true for his comparative work on British and German colonial concentration camps in Southern Africa and on trans-imperial reservoirs of knowledge (the “imperial cloud”).

Selected publication:
“Ein trauriges Fiasko”: Koloniale Konzentrationslager im südlichen Afrika, 1900-1908, Hamburg 2015.
An Imperial Cloud? Conceptualising Interimperial Connections and Transimperial Knowledge, in: Journal of Modern European History 14/2 (2016), pp. 164–182. (with Christoph Kamissek)
A Shared Malady: Concentration Camps in the British, Spanish, American and German Empires, in: Journal of Modern European History 14/2 (2016), pp. 245–267. (with Aidan Forth)
Deadly Learning? Concentration Camps and Zones in Colonial Wars around 1900, in: Volker Barth, Roland Cvetkovski (eds.): Imperial Co-Operation and Transfer, 1870-1930: Empires and Encounters, London/New York 2015, pp. 219–235.

Author profile

Thea Clasen is a postgraduate student of British, American and Postcolonial Studies at the university of Münster. She previously studied English and History at the University of Rostock.

Author profile

Yulia Rashkovskaya is a researcher at Russian Academy of Sciences N. N. Miklouho- Maklay Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology. Her research interests include the biological anthropology, population genetics and archeology of the Great European Plain. Moreover, her current work is connected with the historical aspects and scientific interactions between scientists all over the world.

Raren Stücken auf der Spur – Schädel aus Pappmaché in deutschen Sammlungen, in: Das Altertum 67 (2022), pp. 43-70. (co-authored with U. Lötzsch, U. Brinker, B. Teßmann, M. Schultz, L. Hiepe, A.-M. Begerock)

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