Davenport desk still
“If America is to escape the doom of nations generally, it must breed good Americans.”   
- Harry H. Laughlin, Superintendent, Eugenics Record Office, 1914

Drawing from primary source material, Haunted Files: The Eugenics Record Office reimagines the Eugenics Record Office, transporting visitors to the epicenter of American eugenics research and propaganda. Here, eugenicists channeled Progressive Era ideals of rational thought, social progress, statistics, and state management towards the pursuit of “race betterment” and the defense of Anglo-American racial purity.

A project of the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU, Haunted Files is a multi-part exhibition and online space that explores how anti-Asian policies and legislation set the groundwork for the “scientific racism” of modern American politics. Bringing the “relics” of eugenics out of the buried archives, it confronts us with the legacy that continues to trouble today’s national conversations about race, immigration, intelligence, norms, and belonging.

This website features a digital representation of Haunted Files: The Eugenics Record Office, which was on view at the A/P/A Institute at NYU October 3, 2014 - Friday, March 13, 2015. To browse images from the auxiliary installation “The Normal”: Images from the Haunted Files of Eugenics, which was on view at the NYU Kimmel Windows Gallery from October 31, 2014 - January 4, 2015, click here.

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“Civilization’s going to pieces!”

So declaims Tom Buchanan from Long Island’s North Shore, 1922. “This idea is that we’re Nordics…. And we’ve produced all the things that go to make civilization—oh, science and art, and all that. Do you see?” This frames the core plotline of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: Can the ostentation of new money “wash” Gatsby’s mysterious, dubious origins? Will old stock WASPs see through him?

Enter the Eugenics Record Office (ERO), just a stone’s throw from the “white palaces” of Buchanan’s East Egg, where pioneering eugenicists quantified Anglo-American norms through the measurement of “fit” and “unfit” bodies—creating statistics that drove US immigration restrictions, mass sterilization campaigns, and a regime of standardized testing—policies and worldviews still haunting us today.

Ero exterior
We’ve reproduced the space and files of the ERO and transplanted it from Long Island Sound to Greenwich Village (the very epicenter of dysgenic “racial hybrids and ethnic horrors”). Step into the 1920s office with oak tables, rows of file drawers, forms, and reports, an Underwood typewriter clacking away, the sounds of shuffling papers and muffled voices from the next room… Sifting through the files—from field reports on mixed-race “Mongrel Virginians” to interviews with the incarcerated “criminally insane”—visitors are immersed in the chilling, bureaucratic web of research, politics, and propaganda of the American eugenics movement.

Haunted Files traces the histories of American “scientific racism”—from early anti-Asian policies and legislation to eugenics hysteria—that set the stage for modern American politics, paranoia, and war making. As will become evident, our contemporary sensibilities are still swayed by the logic of visceral difference and disgust entrenched in Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ 1923 Buck v. Bell ruling in favor of forced sterilization: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

Disavowed but omnipresent, this exhibition brings the closeted “relics” of eugenics out of the archives, confronting us with the legacy that continues to trouble national conversations about race, immigration, intelligence, norms, and belonging.

— John Kuo Wei Tchen, Noah Fuller & Mark Tseng Putterman
Fall 2014

These images are drawn from public displays of the American eugenics movement. Originally shown at museums and state fairs across the country, they are displayed here to examine this largely forgotten history and ask probing questions about current national discussions around race, immigration, normativity, and public policies.

Eugenics was premised on an anti-democratic ethic that sought to breed those deemed “normal” and limit the population of those seen as “unfit” citizens. The movement grew out of Gilded Age anxieties when deep societal insecurity prompted scientific explanations for the great wealth divide in this country. Downtown New York, and especially the “Bohemian” Village were imagined as places of degenerate intermingling.

Today, facing similar social malaise, it is easy to turn towards dangerous nationalist policies that seek to limit who belongs. We propose an inclusive coalitional ethics that learns from the paranoid and dangerous memes present in the images displayed here and seeks an alternative, fair and just future.

The “Normal” was on view at NYU Kimmel Windows Gallery
from October 31, 2014 – January 4, 2015.

Image credits: GION Studio.

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Haunted Files is a project of the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU.

The Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU aims to promote discourse on Asian/Pacific America defying traditional boundaries, spanning Asia, to the Americas, through the Atlantic and Pacific Worlds. It works to dispel socio-cultural and political misconceptions, provide cultural and scholarly connections, lead collections building, and encourage innovative research and interdisciplinary exploration. The Institute’s goal is to serve as an international nexus of interactive exchange and access for scholars, cultural producers, and communities from New York to beyond.

Co-curated by John Kuo Wei Tchen and Noah Fuller
Associate Curator: Mark Tseng Putterman
The curators would like to thank:
Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU
Laura Chen-Schultz
Ruby Gómez
Amita Manghnani
Kathleen Gleeson
Jonathan Yuan
Nora Hexter
Rishi Bandopadhay
Manuel Molina
Hamad Altourah

Web Design and Construction
Ziv Schneider and Ken Amarit

American Philosophical Society Charles Greifenstein
Valerie-Ann Lutz
Frank Margeson
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
Clare Clark
Ludmila Pollock
David Micklos
Sue Lauter
Truman State University
Amanda Langendoerfer
Center for Human GeneticsMarlene Hubbard Hilda Roderick

With help from
Judy Susman
Sara Tchen-Susman
Jeffrey Lindberg & Sharon Reiter
Fred Lubow
Paul Tran
Phillip Chen
Lenore Metrick-Chen
Shaye Metrick-Chen