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“It is quite probable that the facts of distribution, life history, and economic status may finally prove to be of more far-reaching value, than whatever information is obtainable exclusively from the specimens themselves.”
From: “The Methods and Uses of a Research Museum” by Joseph Grinnell (1915), Popular Science Monthly 77: 163–169.
Last week’s annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists provided a great opportunity for three CLIR recipients to meet about our proposed panel for the Hidden Collections Symposium in March. Christina Fidler, Museum Archivist, Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California, Berkeley and Rusty Russell, Collection Manager, Botany, Smithsonian Institution and I were joined by Tim White who was unable to be there in person. Tim is Director of Collections and Operations at the Peabody Museum of Natural History and we all connected via Rusty’s mobile phone set to speaker, as we sat on the lawn outside the conference hotel. What brought two archivists and two collection managers together? Besides being CLIR natural science museum recipients, we share an enthusiasm for linking access to archives and scientific specimen and data collections.
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When walking to the exit in the 81st St. – Museum of Natural History subway station, among the creatures on the walls welcoming visitors to the museum is a fish that may appear to be just another prehistoric creature from some geological age long ago. In truth, it wasn’t until the twentieth century that paleontologists learned that this fish, previously thought to be a long extinct dino-era species found only in fossils, was alive and well in the waters off South Africa.
The Coelacanth (pronounced SEEL-uh-kanth) is an exceedingly rare and endangered species of fish that is related to land-dwelling vertebrates, and its lack of evolution over hundreds of millions of years make this fish what experts have dubbed a “living fossil”; the fish looks just as it did when it first appeared in the Devonian period fossil record, some 375,000,000 years ago. In 1938, fishermen caught the first living Coelacanth specimen near the mouth of the Chalumna River, right off the southeastern coast of South Africa. It was purportedly noticed in a fish market by a woman named Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, who was a curator at the nearby East London Museum. She, in turn, sent sketches and a description of the primeval fish to renowned South African ichthyologist J.L.B. Smith who recognized it as a Coelacanth and named the species Latimeria chalumnae after Ms. Courtenay-Latimer and the river in which it was found. As of 1957 only 12 other living specimens had been found, all near the Comoros Islands, and were taken the Natural History Museum in Paris for study. The original discovery was hailed by scientists worldwide as one of the most important natural history discoveries of the century.
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Prior to the advent of the internet, of the computer for that matter, teachers and scientists made use of 35mm slide projectors to provide visual evidence to supplement their lectures or discussions. These rotating, circular cartridges would hold numerous slides, each one diligently marching through the carousel like good little soldiers, patiently awaiting their time to shine, before being promptly dismissed and replaced by the next projected image. Well, let me introduce you to the forefather of the PowerPoint presentation – the lantern slide.
Lantern slides come either in their original black and white incarnation, or are delicately hand painted.
Going through the Library’s collection of lantern slides (of which there are over 40,000), I was able to pull five that showed the Ainu, two of which were the slide image, but tinted in different colors.
Time passes all too quickly as my internship is sadly coming to an end in the Anthropology Division of the American Museum of Natural History. Having worked with two large collections spanning from the 1930s to the 2000s, I was able to see the passage of time through the eyes of an “archivist”…browsing through papers, photographs and correspondence of collections, I had noticed the changes in the papers, staples, writing, ink, as well as the mode and style of the art of communication. For example, the careful handwriting within diaries of scientists, which can still be read today, and the fragile typing carbon paper of the early 20th century, with their letters typed on a Smith-Corona, perhaps, changing through time into Western Union telegrams, cablegrams and finally into the computer printed documents and emails of the present. Yet, the results are the same – communication with one another as humans and the dissemination of information, not to mention, the future needs to preserve our present modes of communication: emails, born digital websites, social networking posts, tweets and blogs.
It is a credit to our Archiving and Library professions to be able to preserve the past, present and the future collections for generations to come. I am grateful to the wonderful staff of the Anthropology Division, for hosting me as an intern, especially to Kristen Mable, my supervisor, for guiding, mentoring and teaching me so much, and also to Paul Beelitz and Barbara Mathe for the exciting tours and helpful information, many thanks!
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!
While interning in the Anthropology Division under the supervision of Ms. Kristen Mable, Registrar for Archives & Loans, I had the opportunity to work with some very interesting collections, the first being the Papers of Junius Bouton Bird, 1907-1982, regarding his research in North America. Bird, a careful excavator and pioneer in the use of radiocarbon dating and textile studies was best known for his South American research. He became the Curator of South American archaeology at the American Museum in 1957. Bird sailed to the Arctic several times, becoming an expert sailor while doing archaeological research work in areas such as: Eastern Greenland, Hopedale, Labrador, Cape York and Southampton Island, to name a few. Artifacts from Bird’s excavations in Labrador and Southampton Island can be found in the AMNH Anthropology Division’s collections.
As I explored the field reports, correspondence and photographs in this collection, I came across an interesting photograph of an artifact known as the “spindle whorl”, found at the L’Anse aux Meadows Norse Vikings settlement ruins on the Northern coast of Newfoundland. This site was first discovered by Helge Ingstad, a Norwegian adventurer and writer, in 1960 by following a hunch and an ancient map. This site, found to be almost a millennium old, was believed to be the place where Vikings landed in North America about 500 years before Christopher Columbus. The “spindle whorl” artifact was in fact, a yarn spinner, about 1000 years old, which proved that the Viking settlers included women, who performed household tasks. Bird did conservation work at the site from 1961 to 1964 and also gave a lecture on the Norse. His notes and slides from the lecture can be found in this collection as well.
This collection also includes archaeological sites in the United States, such as mastodon sites in Hackensack, New Jersey and the Kunatah rock shelter in upstate New York, among others. Also included here are Bird’s papers on his research work in Honduras and Okinawa, Japan. Junius Bird died in New York in 1982, leaving behind plentiful evidence of his illustrious archaeological research work for future generations of people, researchers, students and interns, such as myself, to re-discover. I feel privileged to have worked on this exciting collection and grateful for this unique opportunity.
A mere half-century separates the Ainu from the picture in the previous post to the ones featured here, yet on closer observation, it is easy to tell that things are starting to change as old traditions die out.
Of the four women, only the oldest, second from the right, is seen with the traditional facial tattoo, called anchi-piri (anchi, “obsidian”; piri, “cut”). Facial tattooing, or any tattoos for that matter, was strictly a rite of passage for Ainu women – one that commenced early in childhood, and once finished, signified that the young girl was now a woman ready to be married. In an attempt to force the Ainu into becoming fully immersed into Japanese society, the tradition of tattooing was banned in the late 1800s.
As for the picture seen here, not much is known about it except that was taken in Hokkaido sometime in the 1950s by German explorer Robert Austerlitz.
TagsAinu AMNH library catalog Anthropology Archives Archbold Archival Arrangement archives Authority Names CAT Cataloging CLIR 2010 clir 2012 Correspondence Crocker Land Department of Preparation and Installation Department Records EAC-CPF expeditions Fall 2011 Field Notes Finding Aid finding aids Hayden Planetarium Herpetology Archives hidden connections IMLS LARA linked data Mammalogy Archives Manuscript Collection Museum History Non-Curatorial Field Notes Ornithology Archives Paleontology Archives Phase 2 photographs Photo Print Collection Processing Research Library Risk Assessment Slide Collection Spring 2011 Spring 2012 Summer 2011 Summer 2012 T. Don Carter
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