Currently viewing the tag: "Provenance"

(Xa’Niyus or Xixanus) (Bob Harris) wearing Killer Whale headdress (FMNH 85087 Anthropology collection). The Field Museum of Natural History, CSA13597 (probably by staff photographer, Charles Carpenter).

Over the past few weeks I have been sorting through the Franz Boas Photo Collection in order to create a finding aid. I first came across this collection in the summer while working the library’s photographic print collection, but now that I’m taking a closer look at the photos I’m discovering how truly amazing this collection really is.

This collection contains images that Boas had collected over time, taken by a number of different of photographers (both known and unknown). There are very few photos in the collection attributed to Boas himself, most seem to deal with his interest in studying native cultures of the Pacific Northwest.

Out of the four boxes that make up this collection, one is neatly processed with labeled folders, while the other three are much more random. You can see the comparison in the photo below.

At first I was nervous that these three boxes would be difficult to make sense of, but I spent time with Iris this morning to figure out the best arrangement plan for the disorganized boxes. We decided that the provenance of this collection did not really exist anymore, as there was no rhyme or reason to the order of the photos. Our plan is to keep the materials within each box, but to rearrange the photographs in a more orderly fashion. Today I was able to create an initial container list for Box 1 by dividing it into two distinct categories: portraits and field photographs. There are legacy numbering systems on the back of some of the photographs but it is unclear what they represent or how they once helped organize the collection.

I’m looking forward to digging deeper into this collection to see what Mr. Boas has left behind for us!


Provenance is often the key element that allows a collection to be useful, understandable and relevant to many researchers. The order and arrangement of the archived material reflects the origin of the source materials and the judgment of the primary archivist. The provenance can act as a marker or guideline to the relationship of the materials to the subject matter and how the collection should be experienced especially if there are no finding aids.

Well ladies and gentlemen that brings us to our current issue, dare I say dilemma. I think our little photographic friend here is lost. I discovered our friend filed under “Asiatic Halls” and although I am fine with him being in his current home, due to my faith in provenance, my archivist intuition is telling me something different. No I don’t have a badge but you don’t have to be a detective to spot the signs of (possible) dissociation. Dissociation is far from a victimless crime. It can set into motion a chain of events that could be a researchers worst nightmare.

Wait!!! This just in: Through the paper trail of correspondence we have indeed identified our little friend as a South Asian “Gibbon”. In a letter from Arthur Vernay to then Director Sherwood, Vernay refers to the gibbon as a “vital specimen for the Asiatic Hall”. So much for intuition, mystery solved. Provenance you’ve done it again!