Deep Hanging Out as Historical Research Methodology: The National Anthropological Archives at the Smithsonian Institution

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.[1]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.[2]

Army Medical Museum catalogue card for a human skeleton collected near Fort Ridgely in Minnesota and received by the museum in April 1866. The card reads, “Skeleton of a Sioux Indian, killed by U.S. soldiers May 1864, about twelve miles south of Fort Ridgely, Minn.” United States Army Medical Museum Records Concerning Skeletal Material Transferred to the Smithsonian Institution, Box 1, Folder 6, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

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.[3Historians 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.

[1]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.

[2]Samuel J. Redman, Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016), 

[3]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.

Samuel J. Redman: contributions / website /


  1. Those of us who are anthropologists and historians who have used historical collections have worked at what Redman calls “deep hanging out” for years before Clifford and Renaldo coined the term to describe a well established methodological technique. It is nothing new to researchers who work with evidence and are willing to devote the labor intensive hours needed to simply find, reuse and interpret previously collected data.

    When I first worked on my post-doc at the NAA in 1981-1982 the NAA was filed daily with researchers This was when it was down in the main NMNH building, generally accessible on the first floor, right near the general registrar papers and a few floors below. It was easy to get too right off the front door-down one hall and turn ieft. It was right near the guard station and two metro stations. Hours were not curtailed; they were as long and the museum was opened opened every day, and fellows like curators could usually come down at 8 AM. This meant we were not isolated and we met many visiting researchers, who become life-long friends and colleagues, who have spent a life time with the records. I regularly saw the old guard curators in the archive and it was through all these interactions that I developed my professional network, one that has stood the test of time providing me with colleagues with whom I still work on projects that utilize the NAA and a wealth of other archives and data repositories. The NAA was not closed for lunch at this time; there were enough personnel to staff the reading room and answer the phone. Yet we too regularly had lunch with the archivists and, as Redman states, it was always insightful and useful for our research–as well as helped with archival organization and content analysis of the NAA. We identified photographs and I went to the Army Medical Museum to look at their remaining Southwest collections and brought the information back to the NAA so Redman could use it, I am glad to see. I have after more than 30 years still relied on their assistance as I continued to work on my post-doc: to see how anthropologists influenced the development of Southwestern Native American art and material culture through collecting, research, exhibiting and publishing. I just finished my eight book on the Smithsonian personnel and foundation anthropologists, this time focusing on a case study of Frank and Theresa Russell who worked in Arizona archaeology. from 1900 to 1903.

    When I began my never-ending journey with the NAA, the unit had people on permanent staff who could spent more time than simply photocopying research requests but it is doubtful, given the lack of concern for the archives in administrative priorities, that it will ever see a full staff in the near future. Today even minimally adequate staffing is more in peril as the old guard continues to retire without being replaced. And given proposed budget cuts to anything that is not defense related in the upcoming federal budget debates, we can anticipate that the SI, NMNH, and anthropology department administrations may not support the archives, jeopardizing the critical archival information nodes that Redman describes in his excellent articles published here and inadvertently making the NAA even more isolated. The NAA is an integral facet for the SIMA program and for CoPAR two groups which have spent more than 25 years training researchers how to effectively use archived data so that people can use the old methodology of systematic record referral in museum and archives. What we found was that the graduate theory and methodology courses in graduate student programs were not teaching

    I hope more older and younger researchers pen articles and/or submit comments that the NAA staff can use to fight for more staff to help researchers, to extend their hours so that when people make the long journey to Washington and then the long journey out to Suitland they have the time to utilized the incredible research that is available to researchers willing to make the commitment to engagement in irreplaceable information, or as the current terminology of the two never to be missed terminological authority figures holds “deep hanging out.” Redman has done his job and done it well. Now we all must do ours.

    • Many thanks to Sam Redman for this terrific post and to Nancy Parezo for this impassioned reply. It is great to think that HAN can help document this important work by archivists and make the crucial case for its support and continuation.

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