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RAI Research Seminar on Alfred Cort Haddon

— Posted on 18th October 2023

Ciarán Walsh will be launching his book Alfred Cort Haddon: a Very English Savage at The Royal Anthropological Institute’s Research Seminar on Tuesday 31 October 2023, 16:00-18:00, at 50 Fitzroy Street, London W1T 5BT.

Tickets are free: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/rai-research-seminar-and-book-launch-ciaran-walsh-tickets-724064254677

Haddon adopted the persona of ‘a very English savage’ in January 1895 during a slideshow on the meaning of dance across space and time. This is the first of three interwoven strands of research that Walsh uses to describe the emergence of a sociologically oriented anthropology that Haddon described in a manifesto he published in November 1895. The second strand deals with Haddon’s discovery of ‘instantaneous’ photography in the Aran Islands in 1890 and his adoption of the slideshow as an ethnographic method and an instrument of anti-colonial activism; the central theme of the ‘Haddon and the Aran Islands’ exhibition in the RAI. The third strand investigates Haddon’s engagement with anarcho-utopian networks and his role in an insurrection by humanitarian activists at a meeting of Section H in September 1895. Walsh will presents evidence in support of an alternative interpretation of Haddon’s place in the emergence of ‘modern’ anthropology. It is a post-Kuhnian view framed by a post-evolutionist class war in science in the 1880s that spilled over into organised anthropology in the 1890s after E. B. Tylor challenged ‘physical’ dominance at the Anthropological Institute. Walsh places Haddon at the forefront of this fight and asks if it continues in the current antagonism between ‘traditional’ and ‘practical’ anthropologies.


In Alfred Cort Haddon, a very English savage Walsh takes Haddon’s discovery of instantaneous or social documentary photography in 1890 as his starting point for a critical assessment of Haddon’s claim to be considered one of Anthropology’s Ancestors. Haddon faded into the background as modern anthropology took shape in the 1920s and he re-emerged in the 1980s as an evolutionist predecessor of the social anthropologists that followed him. Including him in a series on anthropology’s ancestors goes against the grain of recent historiography and may seem like an attempt to rehabilitate an old-school ethnologist tainted with scientific racism because of his involvement in the skull measuring business. Walsh treats this version of Haddon as a form of disciplinary folklore – the evolutionist bogeyman in an origin myth as it were – and uses overlooked and newly-discovered sources related to Haddon’s work in Ireland to argue that Haddon, the grandson of anti-slavery activists, adopted the persona of a very English savage and led an insurrection by anti-imperial ethnologists in 1895. Haddon’s ground-breaking experiment in the art of cinematography constituted a modernist achievement that goes to the heart of the crisis in academic anthropology triggered by the Black lives Matter Movement. That entitles Haddon to a place amongst the modernisers of anthropology.

The book is published by Berghahn. Find more on it here: https://www.berghahnbooks.com/title/WalshAlfred

To coincide with the publication of Alfred Cort Haddon, a very English savage, the RAI presents ‘Haddon and the Aran Islands: the beginning of visual anthropology’, an exhibition of twenty-five photographs that revisit and contextualise Haddon’s discovery of ‘instantaneous’ photography in 1890. The exhibition opens in the RAI on 15 October 2023 and runs until 31 January 2024.

Ciarán Walsh works as a freelance curator and writer. In 2009, he curated an internationally acclaimed exhibition of photography by John Millington Synge which brought the photography of Alfred Cort Haddon into focus.