After a week in Canada visiting family it’s back to business here in the AMNH Archives and Special Collections. Today I set myself a task: find the starting point for the Museum’s Northern Plains anthropological research. When and how did it begin? What was its rationale? Obviously these are good things to know when it comes to writing historical notes, but such disparate and extensive programs that extend across decades, under different curators and evolving departments, do not necessarily come with helpful and legibly-transcribed notes for future historians.

So: I went backwards. I read Museum publications from before the systematic plains research began and from the early years of the Department of Anthropology. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t find my perfect explanation, but I did find several early expeditions that provided the groundwork for—and probably piqued the interest of—those who would become involved in the Plains research. My impressions are that the personal interests of curators and patrons, a theoretical vogue around ideas of cultural dispersal, opportunism, the fear that indigenous American culture was vanishing under the onslaught of westernization, and the slow convergence of several research directions morphed into a sort of direction that could then be defined and made systematic.

No day would be complete without new questions being raised, and as usual mine are related to the organization of data. Around the turn of the century, expeditions tended to be named after a patron or destination and identified discretely; later they became field trip-components of larger projects that attempted to link, to compare and to contrast the findings of individual staff members. I’m reminded of just how important it is that this data can be sorted by fields such as ‘expedition name’, where appropriate, or ‘research program’ or ‘year’ as well as by explorer. As I’ve mentioned before, explorer name is extremely useful when it comes to tracking the often seemingly inexplicable movements of staff around North America. However, it is also necessary that context is provided to link these individuals to their place in the wider work of the Museum both at any one time and over time.

Now I just need to figure out how to enter these earlier expeditions into my name-based Excel system. There’s nothing like an evolving methodology to keep things lively!

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