Currently viewing the tag: "hidden connections"
Eight of the 940 watercolor illustrations of fungi by Lewis David von Schweinitz in the Academy of Natural Sciences Archives.   Ewell Sale Stewart Library and Archives Coll. no. 437

Eight of the 940 watercolor illustrations of fungi by Lewis David von Schweinitz in the Academy of Natural Sciences Archives. Ewell Sale Stewart Library and Archives Coll. no. 437

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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Coelacanth mosaic at 81st Street subway platform

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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Lantern Slide of an Ainu Woman

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.

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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!

As I start to wrap up my project here at the AMNH, I was reflecting on the many hats historians have to wear. A big challenge for me has been the departure from a university-style approach to history, which favors critical and interpretive analysis of known ‘facts’ (by ‘facts’ I mean the whos, wheres and whens that have already been somewhat established). Basically, I’ve never been asked to use primary sources to find out when the First World War began. I have, however, been asked to explain why it began using Three Main Arguments in Essay Form.

This project has been interesting for me because I have been mostly concerned with defining the aforementioned ‘facts’ rather than attempting to explain them, which feels like rather a more dangerous task. A wrong date can easily be taken up without question and used again, whereas an analysis is hopefully more self-evidently personal and hypothetical. I definitely do not want to confuse some poor Department of Entomology researcher in the future by saying that Lowie was on an expedition in Nebraska in the fall of 1911 if he actually wasn’t. There is no single authoritative source to check, and though my findings have often corrected earlier lists I am aware that the same will probably apply to my own work when future researchers continue the task.

The other challenge has been in playing a very small role in a very large project. Not only does my subject matter of expeditions extend in all directions, intersecting with broader Museum projects and policies, anthropological movements and individual personalities (hey, there’s a reason we’re working toward linked data!). Its methodology is also a living creature. It is being continually defined, refined, trialed, found wanting, adapted and tried again. My Excel document will be useful for some purposes and less ideal for others. Its nomenclature isn’t completely standardized, so that will need to happen before all of its sorting capacities are fully realized. Our decision to arrange data primarily by explorer name, while also providing context via historical notes, seems appropriate for the nature of North American expeditions between 1900-1920; however this is not necessarily the case for expeditions elsewhere or later or earlier.

So, as a means of accounting for these things, my final few blogs will be an attempt to define exactly what it is I have done and what I haven’t done, what I have focused on and what I have left out. I’ll try to describe the parameters of my investigation and point out the places where they may be somewhat fluid, and hopefully this will become something of a manual-to-the-beautiful-madness for the next person who takes up the task!

Finally, re: the beautiful madness, I’m definitely not looking forward to leaving behind this kind of material (on archeologist N. C. Nelson):

‘When beset by outlaws in Mongolia, he brandished his glass eye at the brigands, who quickly fled.’ (Mike Peed, ‘The Pictures: Digging’, The New Yorker, June 9 and 16, 2008.)

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.

Junius Bouton Bird sailing, possibly on the schooner "Morrissey".

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.

The Spindle Whorl artifact found at the Norse Vikings "L'Anse aux Meadows" site on the Northern coast of Newfoundland.

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.


Four Sakhalin Ainu Women circa mid-1950s

Ainu Women in Traditional Attire - Click image to view full.

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.

As the aforementioned Excel document becomes somewhat usable, I have begun to format my research a second way by writing biographical and historical notes. Hopefully, these will provide context for all the whos, wheres and whens of the expeditions, providing further opportunity to link disparate trips and offering researchers a starting point for their investigations.

It wasn’t long before some of the questions that popped up during our Excel discussions reared their heads again. Should there be an historical note solely for Robert Lowie’s visit to the Crow Indians in 1907, or should it also include the follow-up visits he made during summers in 1910-1914? Perhaps it should expand to include all the fieldworkers who were simultaneously assigned to investigate Northern Plains social organization at this time; after all, they were all given the same research briefing. Or if we choose to stick with Lowie, should we include the side trip he made to three other cultural groups on the same trip? And what about their follow-up visits?

As an historian, I am inclined toward a solution that provides a ‘big picture’ context – a vantage point from which a variety of disparate expeditions and researchers can be understood. The results of Lowie’s work were published as part of a compilation exploring themes across several Northern Plains cultures, and the Department of Anthropology’s research rationale was one of comparison: an analysis of cultural similarities between cultural groups with distinct languages.

At the same time, Lowie also published his results in a book solely about the Crow. I think the best solution is one of balance – there is a need for this bird’s eye view to zoom in, to distinguish components and to identify individual roles if it is to be of value for researchers. I view the Excel data as performing this role – providing specific names, dates and locations that will each link back to this broader historical context, enabling expeditions to be viewed as discrete components even as connections are made.

Barbara and I sat down last week to talk about how to collate the masses of data I’ve accumulated in my fact-finding expedition so far, which is—to put it mildly—all over the place. A Museum Journal article will state that RH Lowie visited a particular area in a particular year, an Annual Report will name the tribe visited, a photograph will suggest the presence of an assistant and, if I’m lucky, a helpful Anthropological Papers publication will state the rationale, broader project and funding source for the trip. On a really good day I stumble across some precise dates. All this is noted, alongside similarly random snippets for other Museum staff, in Word documents that are becoming increasingly unmanageable.

So: we decided to create an Excel document, using something that resembles Smithsonian EAC standards and will hopefully become useful in terms of the eventual transition to linked data: names, dates, locations, cultures studied, historical and biographical notes. A great idea – until I began to enter my findings. The biggest issue we have faced so far is how to group and sort data. ‘Expedition name’ becomes problematic as an identifier when multiple minor, unnamed trips form small parts of broader, named projects that extend over decades. ‘Staff name’ is problematic for the opposite reason – it makes no connection between multiple people working on the same broader project. Add to this the fact that many Museum staff spent a couple weeks in several different places for different projects on the same trip, and you have some severe categorization issues.

After some experimentation, we decided to list trips under the name of the expedition leader, which in many cases was the sole individual on the trip. The use of Excel means that the data can be sorted by other fields to find connections between trips based on time, place and broader project. A lot of information is still missing or unconfirmed, and what we have is extremely varied in its level of detail (one trip will be listed as ‘Summer 1914’, another simply as ‘1914’, another as ’12 August – 16 October 1914’) but it’s a start!