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The Crocker Land Expedition (1913-1917) had difficulties from the start. The expedition whose mission was to investigate an Arctic landmass Robert E. Peary reported seeing, was originally supposed to begin in July 1912, but due to the death of George Borup, one of the expedition leaders, in April of 1912, the expedition was put off until the following July, 1913. Then, an expedition that was supposed to last for one season ended up being four years long. During this time the Crocker Land Expedition’s ship the S.S. Diana wrecked and there were three unsuccessful rescue attempts before Captain Robert A. Bartlett, aboard the steamer “The Neptune”,  finally reached the remaining members in 1917 (in the winter of 1916 several of the expedition members had traveled south by dogsled and returned home).

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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!

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!

Hurricane Sandy has caused something of a delay to both my project and my blog posts, but everything is finally back at full steam ahead. Still, my thoughts are with everyone who is struggling with its ongoing impact.

As I have flicked through the Museum’s Annual Reports, Journal and Anthropological Papers publications, I’ve started to appreciate how enormous this task really is. Every year Museum staff (and enthusiastic volunteers) were sent out in all directions with an enormous variety of research tasks, some of which were cohesive parts of a larger project, and others which were somewhat opportunistic, such as that prompted by news of a building development on the site of unexcavated shell heaps in Florida.

While I began by focusing on one expedition at a time, which seemed like the most manageable approach, I soon realized that the sheer number of Museum staff in the field in any one year meant I would need to return to the same sources multiple times.

This approach also ignored the different levels of linkage and overlap between the expeditions. Robert H. Lowie’s expedition to Crow groups in Montana in 1910, for example, was part of a series of visits there he undertook over several years to gather, check and confirm data. It was also part of an ongoing attempt to analyze social organization among Plains Indians covering the area in the image below, which involved not only Lowie but also Clark Wissler, Alanson Skinner and Pliny E. Goddard, among others. This, in turn, was just one of several thematic studies within a broader project of investigating theories of cultural dispersal from Canada to the southwest United States, linking the Plains research with the Huntington Expedition as well as the Jesup North Pacific explorations.

Area covered by the Northern Plains research project

While this has meant my research needs to focus on several levels simultaneously, it has also been valuable in determining a scope for the project. Tangential explorations, side projects and self-sponsored volunteer investigations continue to pop up, however, so it will be interesting to see how these impact our ongoing attempt to create a framework for researchers.

I’m excited to have flown from sunny Sydney to New York (sunny upon my arrival but sadly stormy as time moved on) to be part of this project for the next six weeks. As an historian with an emphasis on photography and 2oth century culture, the potential of linked data to cross disciplinary boundaries is incredibly exciting. Not only will it create new ways to find information, it also allows context to be built up around diverse objects in a variety of locations. It means that a given expedition photograph and its metadata will no longer languish in an obscure corner of the internet. Instead, it can be linked to a story, with a date, a location, and actors who might have written about their experience, not to mention the other photographs they took and the objects they collected.

My job is to work on the context part of this project, producing historical and biographical notes for expeditions and their participants. The Museum’s southwest expeditions exist in the archives as a tangle of personalities, itineraries and discoveries. In the next few weeks I’ll continue a long process of unravelling the stories and making connections with photographs in the archives, and hopefully bring these valuable sources one step closer to becoming linked data.

I’ll be keeping track of my method and findings on here, so stay tuned!


On our first day in the AMNH Archives, we got acquainted with the collections, primarily focusing on departmental records.

We worked on a variety of material types ranging from the early to mid-20th century. It was a great place to start the project and to know the history of AMNH at a glance, it included administrative reports, historical analysis of charters, constitution and law, report of history of Museum founding, donation and consultant reports on the future and funding of the Hayden Planetarium.

We also worked with a collection of manuscripts that consisted of translations of newspaper and scholarly articles about snails, oysters, pearls, and shells. These translations were done between 1938-39 for the Works Progress Administration Translation Project. The original articles were obtained from the New York Public Library and were written in various languages, including English, French and German. Some of the handwritten papers in this collection have become brittle, but most of the typescript pages, which make up the bulk of the collection, are in good condition.

We encountered some subjects that we were not very familiar with; therefore, doing research about the topics that we worked on the papers today will definitely help our work for the next time!

I don’t know if all of the museum departments have undergone so many name/identity changes, but certainly the department pertaining to woods, forestry, conservation, botany, and ecology has. It began as the Department of Woods and Forestry (1910-1937), and became known as the Department of Forestry and Conservation (1937-1946), the Department of Forestry and General Botany (1946-1953), the Department of Conservation and General Ecology (1953-1956), and finally the Department of Vegetation Studies, which appears to have become part of the Department of Special Activities in 1961.

For the past few weeks I have working on the Department of Forestry and General Botany papers from 1953-1958. These records pertain to the research, planning, design, and construction of the Landscape Hall (more formally known as the Felix M. Memorial Hall of Ecology) and the Hall of North American Forests. Most of the material consists of the actual notes for constructing these halls. A lot of it is handwritten or typed, memo-style notations. There is also printouts of exhibition text with hand-written edits.

The only problem has been that there is limited record of the actual department from this period, and I had to do some serious research into the Annual Reports in order to pinpoint the dates of departmental transitions and also the openings of different portions of the halls. The department dates are above, and the Felix M. Warburg Memorial Hall of Ecology opened in 1951, and the Hall of North American Forests opened to the public in 1958.

In 1957, when the Hall of North American Forests was about to open to the public, a photograph was taken of Matthew Kalmenoff painting the background for the Oak-Hickory Group exhibit. Because the records are mostly the notes and sketches saved during the planning of the exhibit, finding this photograph in the 1956-1957 Annual Report really contextualized the magnitude of this project compared to the scant information on the finished exhibit in the department papers. I believe this is because the Exhibitions Department would have most of the records for the actual construction of the exhibitions, whereas the Department of Conservation and General Botany was responsible for the research and logistics of what would go into the exhibits.

Regardless, the picture shows the near-finished product of a process that is shown, in the records, to be meticulous, creative, and above all else, as accurate as possible to the natural landscape depicted in the mural. If you haven’t already, I recommend looking through the Annual Reports. They contain a lot of really great photographs and information about how the museum has changed and developed over time.

Morris K. Jesup, the ideal philanthropic gentlemen and the museum’s third president, played a major role in creating and expanding various collections within the museum. Of particular interest to me these past months has been the Jesup Collection of North American Woods, founded in 1881 and funded with Mr. Jesup’s own money, to collect specimens of wood and (ideally) foliage of all trees that grow natively in North America. The collection is pretty substantial (17 boxes), and the material provides unique insight into the development of the museum as well as the preservation and display of wood and foliage specimens.

One of the most interesting relationships preserved in the collection pertains to the acquisition of the wood specimens themselves. In addition to the scientific community, Mr. Jesup corresponded with railroad companies requesting that they send him any new woods that they encountered while clearing for tracks, and with logging companies requesting the same.

One photograph really piqued my interest. It was tucked in a folder of miscellaneous photographs obtained in the late 1940’s during the building of the Hall of Landscapes, and it shows a man leaning against a cross-section of an enormous redwood tree. On the back, someone has written “now in London England- 22 ft. diameter 4 ft. long.” In the background you can see railroad tracks, the line of clear-cutting, and even some houses. It really captures the extent of logging in California. What is also interesting is that none of the surrounding trees are anywhere near the size of that being displayed, suggesting that when this photograph was taken the tree may have already traveled some distance.

I wish there was more information about about the context of the photograph- what is the approximate date? 1910? 1920? Was the picture taken because this was an unusually large specimen (which, depending on the year, it could have been), or is it unusual for another reason? Why was it cut to a thickness of only 4 ft.? Obviously the railroad track here is already built, but I’m still curious about the relationship of logging and railroad construction, and ultimately how/why the museum obtained this photograph when they were constructing the Hall of Landscapes. In most of the forestry collection everything is well-documented and its origin is easy to determine. This small file of miscellaneous photographs is one of the only mysteries.