Field Notes (page 1 of 2)

Field Notes is a forum for reflections on the state of the field of history of anthropology, broadly conceived. We welcome a variety of contributions including (but not limited to) short articles, theoretical musings, reports on cultural and academic events and displays, and discussions of intellectual resources of interest to our readers. If you’re interested in submitting such a piece, please email us at notes@histanthro.org.

Arsenic and Old Pelts: Deadly Pesticides in Museum Collections

All museums use pesticides and preservatives, though their health impacts are not always known; ethnographic collections can thus pose a health risk. Here we  open one cold case file, in which we believe a prominent American anthropologist may have directly suffered from such effects. Our own experience and inquiries confirm this hunch.

Clark Wissler fell ill in 1905, soon after he began working in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. At some point during the period of Wissler’s illness, Museum Director Henry Fairfield Osborn recommended that his own physician examine Wissler. But despite this additional medical consultation, the illness persisted and was never successfully diagnosed—making him appear frail until 1928 when it mysteriously cleared up. The symptoms were severe enough to cause Wissler to give up his fieldwork on the Blackfeet Reservation.

What could this illness have been, with symptoms so debilitating as to disrupt his anthropological studies on the Northern Plains? Wissler (1870-1947) grew up in rural Indiana, collecting artifacts on farm fields, and took a Ph.D. in psychology at Columbia University in 1901. He took courses with Franz Boas, strengthening his interest in anthropology. Boas took him on as assistant in ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History in 1902, where he began his career as Curator of the Department of Anthropology until his retirement in 1942.

Clark Wissler in 1921. Creative Commons, ASU Embryology Project Encyclopedia

Wissler’s position put him in charge of the American Museum’s collections in anthropology, as well as its department staff and associated researchers. For most of his working years, the museum’s approach emphasized accumulating objects, to bring specimens to the intellectual center, to preserve disappearing crafts, and to facilitate comparative studies in cultural and biological anthropology. Wissler spent thirty-seven years in his AMNH office and its adjacent collection storage and laboratories.

Our initial interest was piqued when one of this article’s authors  (Kehoe), who has been visiting  the Montana Blackfeet Reservation for many years and has drawn on Wissler’s publications and notes, wondered whether pesticides used in the collections stored around Wissler’s office might have contributed to his mysterious illness. She discussed her suspicions with Becker, whose reflections on his experience lent credence to Kehoe’s suspicions and provoked this article.

During the first three months of 1963, Becker held the position of Registrar for the Civic Center Museum in Philadelphia, formerly the Commercial Museum. Among his many tasks, he was charged with the destruction of approximately 98% of the collection by volume, which, incidentally, and tragically, included one of only two complete sets of Eadward Muybridge’s stop motion photographs– as well as the world’s best animal pelt collection.  “This peculiar task did not compute in my ethnographic brain,” he wrote, reflecting on the experience, “leading me to stumble along until I realized that my instructions were exactly as I write them here–– destroy the collection! When it finally dawned on me that everyone was serious, I quit. Fortunately! The animal pelts were all heavily treated with arsenic! Every work night I went home looking like a coal miner, covered in a black grime that also coated my lungs. In those three months I had inhaled a significant dose of arsenic and had become, strangely, mad as a hatter!” Could arsenic ingestion have caused Wissler’s woes?

Becker also recalls later work on excavations in Guatemala: “The laboratory work involved extensive use of Duco cement, acetone, and other products that exacerbated problems from heavy metal poisoning. The primary symptoms were a vague feeling of being unwell, lethargy, and proclivity to spontaneous outbreaks of rage. In addition to being crazy as a coot, advanced symptoms included the ulceration of mucous membranes. As that phase progressed, and my mouth became a raw mess, I could no longer eat solid food, and could barely speak.” A nose and throat specialist diagnosed him with “plumber’s colic,” or lead poisoning.

Becker’s experiences led us to look further into the possible link between Clark Wissler’s museum appointment and his never-identified ailment. We queried the Council of Museum Anthropologists, and promptly received copies of horrifying accounts of pesticide use. David H. Thomas, at present a curator at the AMNH, checked with the staff and reported that their conservators “use XRF [X-ray fluorescence] to test our collections on loan… in addition to arsenic, they routinely identify methyl bromide on a huge number of objects, and sometimes mercury as well” (personal communication, 6/12/17). Further, one study on pesticide use in collections noted that “salt, herbs, alum, spices, or tobacco” had been used in the eighteenth century to preserve natural history specimens, but collectors found these to be unsatisfactory; “Naturalists then decided to try new techniques for preserving bird and mammal skins. They substituted techniques that had been used in dried collections for a new group of very strong and effective poisons, for example, mercuric chloride dissolved in water, corrosive sublimate, or arsenic” (Marte, Péquignot, Von Endt 2006, 143-144). Catherine Hawks has noted collectors’ evolving practices of pest control:  “Collection growth, the use of cabinets to store specimens, and discoveries in organic chemistry eventually led to the use of gas-phase chemicals as fumigants for the contents of individual cabinets or for large-scale treatments. The legacy of pesticide use continues to pose problems for staff and various collections users, especially the recipients of repatriated objects” (Hawks 2001, 2; see also Henry 2015 on toxins in repatriated materials). Indeed, such concerns apply to collections at the AMNH; as Lisa Goldberg’s work shows, during a number of years the Smithsonian regularly used arsenic and mercury compounds for similar ends (Goldberg 1996, 29).

Clark Wissler did not leave an archive of personal papers or a memoir of his museum work. We probably will never know the cause of his twenty-three-year illness, nor why it cleared up in 1928, but poisoning from the pesticides that surrounded his working quarters  is a tenable hypothesis. If only he had gone out to the pure air of the Blackfeet Reservation, despite his symptoms, he might have enjoyed healthy summers and perhaps figured out that his illness was associated with his home or work environment. Had he relocated to an office removed from the collections storage areas lining the corridors of the Anthropology Department, he might have reduced his intake of poisons. If our hypothesis is correct, Wissler’s exposure to toxins was more diffuse, less intense than young Marshall Becker’s, yet both men’s researches were curtailed in some respects: Becker’s for sure from toxins, Wissler’s perhaps.

 

Acknowledgements: We are deeply grateful to Lea McChesney, Lillia McEnaney, Felicia Pickering, Nicolette Meister, David H. Thomas and Laila Williamson for their rapid and very useful responses to our query about the use of pesticides in museums. If any readers of this note know of anthropologists, other than Becker, poisoned by collections pesticides, let us know––this could be an ongoing HOA topic. 

References

Freed, Stanley A., and Ruth S. Freed. 1992. “Clark Wissler.” In Biographical Memoirs: V.61, edited by National Academy of Sciences, 469-496. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Goldberg, Lisa. 1996. “A History of Pest Control Measures in the Anthropology Collections, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 35 (1): 23-43.

Hawks, Catherine. 2001. “Historical Survey of the Sources of Contamination of Ethnographic Materials in Museum Collections.” Collection Forum 16 (1–2): 2–11.

Henry, Dominic. 2015. “Harmful Pesticides and Native American Collections.” International Repatriation Blog internationalrepatriation.wordpress.com

Marte, Fernando, Amandine Péquignot, and David W. Von Endt. 2006. “Arsenic in Taxidermy Collections: History, Detection, and Management.” Collection Forum 21 (1–2): 143–150.

 

‘Cultures in the Body’: Dance and Anthropology in Revolutionary Cuba

The short documentary Historia de un ballet (History of a Ballet, 1962) dramatizes an ethnographic encounter central to a creative process. Director José Massip followed Cuban choreographer Ramiro Guerra and his company of modern dancers as they researched, created, and premiered a new work, Suite Yoruba (1960), about Afro-Cuban ritual music and dance. The film depicts dancers actively engaging with anthropological methods as they conduct fieldwork and share their findings with a wider public through performance. Though not formally trained as anthropologists, dancers traversed disciplinary and social boundaries to create work that animated political visions of revolutionary collectivity. Continue reading

Editors’ Introduction: Fields, Furrows, and Landmarks in the History of Anthropology

In 1973, the first issue of the History of Anthropology Newsletter opened with a statement of purpose from the editorial committee, called “Prospects and Problems,” by George Stocking. The editors were self-consciously defining and claiming a field. They let loose with territorial metaphors: occupation, soil, furrows, forays. Now, as we continue our relaunch of HAN, we return to this 40-year-old manifesto as a starting point for thinking about the past, present, and future of the field.

The 1973 essay noted a sense of disciplinary crisis as a spur to growth; it asked whether this history should be done by anthropologists, intellectual historians on “one-book forays,” by “anthropologists manqué,” or by a new generation of interdisciplinarians; it announced the need for “landmarks” including lists of archival holdings, bibliographic aids, research in progress, recent publications—which HAN would provide. It ended with a call for participation from readers.

Seeking to continue HAN’s role as a site for debating the field’s present state and shaping its future, in late 2016 we invited a series of scholars from various fields to respond to this manifesto. In February 2017, eight distinguished authors responded with generosity, insight, experience, good humor—and impressive speed. Continuing our reappraisal of Stocking’s inaugural editorial statement, in August 2017 we added nine additional surveys of the field’s potential terrain. These contributions covered new ground, unearthed skepticisms, and sowed a set of new questions. Now, in October 2017, we close the series with a third set of reflections from an impressive group of early career scholars. They imply a rich future for the study of anthropology’s past.

We encourage HAN readers and subscribers to make use of the comments section to respond to individual pieces, or to the section as a whole. Dig in and leave a mark.

 

This editorial was originally published on February 1, 2017. It was updated on August 15, 2017 and on October 21, 2017.

 

Collaborations: Envisioning an Engaged Multimodal Future for Anthropology

 

“The present was an egg laid by the past that had the future inside its shell.”
Zora Neale Hurston

 

I asked two colleague-friends to collaborate in this exercise of envisioning the future of the field: visual anthropologist and filmmaker Patricia Alvarez and medical anthropologist and playwright Ugo Edu. We first circulated written ideas and then Edu suggested a conversational format à la Hartman and Wilderson (2003).  With the limits of time and space, we reproduce only parts of that conversation here. To render this collaborative work visible, see our transcript. Continue reading

Disentangling Ojibwe Botanical Medicine

As a new graduate student in the history of science, technology, and medicine, I was interested in circulations of medical practices and medicinal plants between Ojibwe communities in northern Minnesota and non-native, non-professional medical practitioners in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.[1]

Casting about for archival materials, I found many historical documents that directly discuss medicinal plants had been produced by anthropologists, ethnologists, and their forbears. Medicine writ large—medicinal plants, songs, and recipes, ideas and stories about medical practice, and general concerns about sickness and health—figured frequently in the field notes, professional correspondence, and publications of such varied figures as Aleš Hrdlička (1869-1943), Frances Densmore (1867-1957), and Sister Mary Inez Hilger (1891-1977). In these documents, medicine and anthropology were deeply enmeshed. Continue reading

Entangled Tensions

The history of archaeology, as a field, has always seemed (to me) to be playing catch up with work in the history of anthropology.[1] Yet, reading the contributions to HAN’s “Fields, Furrows, and Landmarks” Special Focus Section suggests to me that the histories of archaeology and anthropology now operate on the same plane in terms of the tensions that drive their production. Anyone working on archaeology’s history should be willing to grapple with the many tensions inherent in acknowledging the field’s geopolitical entanglements in the same way as historians of anthropology. Indeed, these shared but distinct histories of knowledge production can be put to good analytical use. As their investigations are driven by similar—and often entangled—tensions, are bounded categories like ‘the history of archaeology’ or ‘the history of anthropology’ still useful?

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Anthropological Genealogies, Anthropological Kinship

For me, the most affecting part of the prospectus for HAN was not George Stocking’s use of settler colonialist metaphors, but finding Regna Darnell’s name among those on the original editorial board. Continue reading

Putting History on Display

Confronted with all the limitations of my stiff training as a historian of science, I have become enchanted by the narratives taking shape at the intersection of academic research and museum work with texts, things, space, and people. In March 2018, we are opening the exhibition FOLK: From Racial Types to DNA Sequences at The Norwegian Museum of Science and Technology in Oslo. Every time I utter these words, my heart starts beating faster. For me, this is where the history of anthropology comes alive, where we can test its contemporary relevance, and where all could go wrong. Continue reading

The Witches’ Stock

George Stocking was the anthropologist’s historian of anthropology: a “professional stranger” who plowed furrows in department halls arm-in-arm with anthros tending fields and chickens.[1] The horticultural trope–his for us–strikes me as more taboo than totemic today, but I’ll take it anyway.[2] I suspect he would’ve liked the image of toil in common.[3]

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Special Focus: Fields, Furrows, and Landmarks in the History of Anthropology

Read the full Focus Section here.

Ethnographic Presents

Ethnographic presents are of course as much in history as any other phenomena, although anthropologists sometimes writing in the ethnographic present may be deliberately avoiding a historian’s trajectory. It has of course long ceased to be necessary to point to what once led anthropologists to be explicit on this point: they wanted to get away from the kinds of ‘conjectural histories’ that were then dominating explanations about human institutions. It is precisely because issues cease to be necessary that we need a history of anthropology.

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George and Me

I hope you’ll indulge a personal reminiscence.

When HAN was founded in 1973 I was a graduate student in History at Harvard, just focusing on my dissertation. George Stocking visited Harvard sometime before that and offered a seminar in the Anthropology Department. I sat in on the course—our first encounter.

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Anthropology Has a History

Why is the history of anthropology necessary and vital now? Why the history of anthropology (instead of other approaches to its content and questions)? Why the history of anthropology (instead of other human sciences or political/intellectual/material intersections)? At the risk of seeming to be a curmudgeon, I have to register my doubts that these questions merit the affirmative elaborations that they seem to presuppose. Any historical phenomenon merits its history being recorded and engaged. Anthropology has a history and so is a worthy subject of historiographical inquiry, and as Stocking amply demonstrated, a historiography that cannot legitimately be confined merely to its intellectually internal twists and turns.

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The Charge of the Untimely

I came to HAN relatively late, 20 years after it got going. But there’s a sense in which the history of anthropology is always a belated field. I caught the bug as an undergraduate in two seminars with Stocking at Chicago— he was an inspiring, exacting teacher—and I pored over HAN, even subscribed to it, in the years to come. It had an obscure, retro charm, even then: the cover, which must have been mimeographed a hundred times; the stapled pages of typed-up and dot-matrix text. It was like a church circular from 1965, a decommissioned card-catalog entry, a zine, or an indie-label 45 to which only a few were privy.

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Porous Borders

Now that borders and walls are so commonplace in our daily political discourse, a reflection on our (admittedly more benign) disciplinary boundaries seems timely. I came to the history of anthropology from an early focus on post-WWII evolutionary biology; encountering the particular mix of physical and cultural anthropology that underpinned post-revolutionary indigenista politics in Mexico necessarily led me to a disciplinary identity crisis. Continue reading

It’s Only the Science of Who We Are and Where We Came From

My training was in laboratory-based biological anthropology, but I was always interested in the (checkered) history of the field. So back in 1986, when I was a genetics post-doc at the University of California, Davis (during the first generation of DNA sequencing), I also co-taught a graduate anthropology seminar in the history of bio-anthropology.

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Antiquarian Responsibilities

If the truth be told, the exponential growth undergone by the history of archaeology over the past thirty years can only in part be attributed to the influence of G. W. Stocking and the History of Anthropology Newsletter—the revival of which is of course both timely and full of promise. The erstwhile debate as to whether the history of a given field (in the social sciences and humanities, at least) is best undertaken by its practitioners or by professional historians—besides raising questions as to what this “best” might possibly imply—proves rather less pertinent for a discipline such as archaeology that is, after all, an intrinsically historical one.

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On Disciplines and Their Crises–Or, the Rise and Fall of Empires

No less than epidemics or scientific facts, disciplinary crises are constructed. And just as a disease or a truth claim can also be real, so can a crisis. In all three cases, much depends on perspective and who is doing the defining. Few scholars today would contest, for instance, that anthropologists in the nineteen-sixties and seventies debated their profession’s politics and their discipline’s objects of study, or that these debates called into question tenets considered fundamental to the field (Kuklick 2008; Clifford 2005). As George Stocking put it in his original call to arms for the History of Anthropology Newsletter, anthropologists turned to historical analysis in part because of their shared “sense of disciplinary crisis.” From HAN’s brief “statement of purpose,” it was this casual yet confident emphasis on crisis that jumped out at me. Surely, this assertion needs some probing.

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Rites of Passage

When we editors of the History of Anthropology Newsletter refer to ourselves as “the HAN Dynasty,” we’re making a (bad) joke. But we have all felt the weighty presence of the ancestors. It was a strange and awful coincidence that HAN’s first two editors died in the first half of 2013: George Stocking after long preparation, Riki Kuklick with terrible suddenness.

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Alexander Reshetov and the History of Russian Ethnography

Alexander Mikhailovich Reshetov (1932–2009) was a prominent Russian anthropologist and historian of anthropology. He authored more than 500 scientific publications dedicated to the culture of East and Southeast Asia, theoretical problems of ethnology, and the history of Russian ethnographic studies. He was a board member of the Association of Russian Ethnographers and Anthropologists for several years until 2007. Between 1994 and 2005 he organized panels on the history of Russian ethnography and anthropology during the Association’s biannual conferences, which drew hundreds of scholars. Reshetov filled many gaps in the history of Russian anthropology, saving many prominent ethnographers from oblivion and ensuring continuity of the Russian scholarly tradition. Continue reading

The Extended Archive, Vindicated

I remember the early days of HAN and the appearance of George Stocking’s foundational work—I still have my much-scribbled-on copies. It has been enormously gratifying to see the history of anthropology mature over the last few decades. For me, the way in which the visual and material have moved to the center of the analytical field is especially significant, because there appears to be an especially productive entanglement of visual, material, and historical studies within anthropology. Continue reading

A History Set Free From Its Object?

A dark orange sheet of paper was inserted in the December 2003 issue of History of Anthropology Newsletter (HAN), containing the following headline: ‘Regime Change at HAN’. The short text briefly mentioned the new editor and her publications without any editorial statement. Does this mean that the history of anthropology was by 2003 an established domain of research and consequently that HAN no longer needed to justify itself? To what extent did the absence of an editorial statement signal a sort of implicit recognition that the field had been ‘occupied’ by historians of science, and that the transition (not entirely smooth) from intellectual history to history of science had taken place between 1973 and 2003? Or was it the acknowledgement that the ‘Problems’ raised by the 1973 statement were no longer thorny issues? Continue reading

Making Anthropologists Visible

In 2003, when I first went to the eastern highlands of New Guinea to talk with the Fore people about investigations in the 1950s and 1960s of the fatal brain disease they called kuru, I wanted to know how they distinguished the various “whitemen” (a category that includes women) who came to study them, prod them, bleed them, and cut them up during this time. Having trained in medicine and history, I had previously supposed the disciplinary distinctions must be obvious. Nobel laureate D. Carleton Gajdusek was evidently a scientist of sorts; Michael Alpers and John Mathews did autopsies and epidemiology; and Shirley Inglis Glasse (later Lindenbaum) and her husband Robert Glasse were the ethnographers who connected the transmission of kuru to Fore endo-cannibalism, thus helping to initiate “medical anthropology.” Continue reading

Harvesting or Gleaning: Reflections on Dumpster Diving as Historical Method

Revisiting Stocking’s 1973 essay, I found the metaphor of the field of anthropology as an agricultural field somewhat at odds with my own historical sensibility. The depiction of “unobstructed acreage” and “unplowed furrows” being gradually settled by a new discipline—or raided by historians on one-book forays—may resonate for some scholars, but not for me. If I may recast the metaphor, the way I have always approached researching the history of anthropology is through gleaning—the Old Testament-sanctioned practice of the poor combing through recently harvested fields to scavenge for leftovers. Continue reading

Unsettling the History of Anthropology

A land without men for men without land!” ran the slogan for the colonization of Amazonia under the military regime in Brazil, in full swing in 1973. That same year, George W. Stocking urged intellectual historians to grab fertile fields sporadically occupied by a small band of anthropologists. The History of Anthropology Newsletter (HAN) was explicitly devised to provide these hardy pioneers with a set of tools to plow this promising land, driving away dilettante hunter-gatherers trying to “hang around indefinitely.” Continue reading

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