My path as a historian forever changed during my first year in the archives.
When I began working at the National Anthropological Archives (NAA) in an ominous, cloudy box of a building near the end of the Washington DC metro train line, I thought I might write a dissertation on exhibiting material culture. Secretly, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing or looking for. What I did know by this point in my research life and education as a historian was how to ask questions and search for answers from different perspectives. I also knew how to benefit from the expertise of archivists. The brilliance of archivists, in fact, is where this story really took a fundamental turn for me.
Inherent to the pleasure and pain in working at some archives such as the NAA is the fact that you work in relative geographic isolation. Partly as a result of this situation, over the sustained period I spent there I had the chance to eat with the archivists in the small café in the building and learn more about the collections. I shared with the staff the topics was interested in, and they kindly suggested materials I should research further. It was through this sort of informal discussion that I was told about the Army Medical Museum records housed at the NAA. Truth be told, a seemingly unsophisticated part of my historical research methodology became a sort of “deep hanging out” (a phrase Clifford Geertz used to describe certain ethnographic experiences) in which I engaged as a historian with thoughtful archivists, collections managers, and curators willing to share information about the collections.The experience was a dream.
In stark contrast to this comfortable dream-like environment for me as researcher were the gut-wrenching records I found in the NAA. The Army Medical Museum records whispered unsettling details surrounding practices related to collecting human bodies as specimens for a newly organized US Army museum in Washington DC. Many of the skeletons, skulls especially, were later transferred to the Smithsonian. Some Native American bodies were eventually returned through the newly created repatriation laws emerging in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I came to these materials knowing something about the history of collecting human remains, having worked with museum remains at museums first in Chicago and later in Denver. I continued reading about this history but became convinced that the full story had not been told. Pouring over the microfilm and original documents connected to bone collecting with the Army Medical Museum records inspired further research into the Papers of Aleš Hrdlička (1869-1943). Ultimately, the work culminated in my first book Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums.
The valuable work of archivists is often overlooked in historical scholarship, the history of anthropology being no different in this regard. Archivists at the NAA became critical to my understanding the Smithsonian’s bone collection and much more at a pivotal time for me personally. Historians are offered rare gifts in the knowledge and experienced shared by archivists. The key is being open to the possibility of discovering something challenging and new.
Anthropologist Renato Rosaldo is often credited with first using the term, “deep hanging out,” in relation to ethnographic research methodology. See James Clifford, “Anthropology and/as Travel,” Etnofoor9, no. 2 (1996): 5–15. Anthropologist and historian James Clifford picked up on the term, using it to critique approaches to ethnographic fieldwork which seemingly lacked methodological rigor. In a widely read 1998 essay in The New York Review of Books, Geertz reflects on Clifford’s ideas about ethnographic methodology in an essay which made more widely known the phrase, “deep hanging out.” See Clifford Geertz, “Deep Hanging Out,” The New York Review of Books45, no. 16 (1998): 69–72.
Samuel J. Redman, Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016),
Archivists at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology; Field Museum of Natural History; the Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley; San Diego Museum of Man; and the archives and special collections library at the Mütter Museum and College of Physicians of Philadelphia also helped advance the project as it evolved into a book on the curious story of how human remains collections came to be.