Caring for Objects, Caring for Us: the 2016 Summer Institute in Museum Anthropology Symposium


Poster for the Summer Institute in Museum Anthropology (SIMA)

How do we care for objects and how do objects care for us? Dr. Bill Wood, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a 2016 SIMA Faculty Fellow, asked this question during the discussion portion of the 2016 Summer Institute in Museum Anthropology (SIMA) Symposium. The Symposium, which took place Thursday and Friday, July 21-22, was the culmination of four weeks of work by Master’s students and PhD candidates from across the United States and Canada. Since 2009, the Summer Institute in Museum Anthropology has brought 12 to 14 anthropology graduate students into the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) to engage collections. In 2015, the program has expanded to include two visiting faculty fellows. Funded by the Cultural Anthropology Program of the National Science Foundation, the program is run and hosted by NMNH’s Anthropology Department. SIMA participants are taught by staff from NMNH and across the Smithsonian, as well as by three visiting professors. Through hands-on work with objects in intensive seminars, SIMA trains students in the core methodological aspects of museum anthropology and helps them understand the types of data in museums, and the issues involved in working with collections. In the process, students learn how to apply their diverse theoretical interests through object-based research.

Without claiming to know all the answers, the presenters showcased an extraordinary range of projects in-progress, developed over the course of a short four weeks. Introduced by Candace Greene, Director of SIMA, they ranged from Kimberley Minor’s (PhD, Art History, University of Oklahoma) work on 19th century men’s garments from the Upper Missouri River region to Bailey Duhé’s (Master’s, Anthropology, University of Colorado Boulder) statistical analysis of Liberian artifacts at NMNH. Each project emerged from the students’ research on objects housed in the Anthropology Collections of the NMNH and materials held by the Collections Resource Center of the National Museum of the American Indian, as well as other Museums at the Smithsonian such as the National Museum of African Art. Students also worked closely with documents, and still and moving images held in the National Anthropological Archives as well as materials and knowledge found in other departments of the NMNH.

SIMA participant Kristin Otto (Indiana University) presents “Beauty with Hidden Flaws: Maintenance and Transformation of Sowei Identity through Repair and Alternation. Kristin is pictured with a Sowei mask that has been repaired with a piece of carved wood inserted into the crack and painted. One image shows the outside of the mask and the other image is of the repair visible within the mask. Photo by Joshua Bell.

Despite their diversity, all the projects returned to the question: how do we care for objects and how do they, in turn, care for us? Many of the presentations grappled with this question as they discussed how objects were used and then how they were repaired—either by the culture they came from or by the museum that collected them. Kristin Otto (PhD, Anthropology, Indiana University), in her presentation titled “Beauty with Hidden Flaws: Maintenance and Transformation of Sowei Identity through Repair and Alteration,” encountered two types of repair on these Sande society masks: repair as a response to damage and repair as an intervention, a way to change the context in which a mask is used. This literal caring for objects then allows these objects a longer life, so that they may care for us. Along this vein, Tierney Brown (PhD, Anthropology, New York University) in her presentation “Contextualizing Tibetan Manuscripts” explored how x-ray fluorescence (XRF) and other forms of close looking make visible not only the care that went into creating manuscripts as they circulated within Tibet, but also what happened to them as they came to rest in NMNH’s collections. Her work was an insightful reminder of how different approaches to and technologies of looking open up possibilities for future research. She also helped to tease out different emic and etic forms of care.


SIMA participant Sowparnika Balaswaminathan (UC San Diego) presenting “Passage from India: Objects of Political and Personal Persuasion.” Sowparnika images with a set of heads gifted to NMNH Curator for Asia Eugene I. Knez during his collecting tour of South and Southeast Asia in 1961. Photo by Joshua Bell.

Presenters such as Sowparnika Balaswaminathan (PhD, Anthropology, UC San Diego), bolstered their arguments with materials from the NAA. In her presentation titled “Passage from India: Changing Objects and Transforming Values,” Balaswaminathan explored objects collected in India in 1961 by Eugene I. Knez, the Curator for Asia of the NMNH (1959-1978). Knez’s correspondence, found in the NAA, informed Balaswaminathan’s work on how these objects acted as agents of political desires and how their values changed depending on context or caretaker. Perhaps these archival documents care for the objects by providing a background through which we may begin to understand them—namely how the politics at play in 1960s India and the U.S. affected which objects were collected and how. Nicolas Crosby (Master’s, Anthropology, Central Washington University) used the S. Ann Dunham Papers at the NAA for his presentation, “Daggers of the Dead: How Colonialism Killed the Keris.” Dunham’s notes provided Crosby with cultural context for these ceremonial Balinese daggers and discussions of authenticity or fakeness. While the objects’ materialities were essential in these presentations, so too were the textual and photographic materials that the students worked with.


SIMA participant Naomi Recollet (University of Toronto) presenting “Wiigwaas Minwaa Ziiyaaqimide (Birch bark and Maple Syrup): Exploring Museum Collections Containing Anishinaabek Material Objects and Challenges of Walking in Two Worlds.” Naomi is pictured with a selection of objects made from birch bark at NMNH. Photo by Joshua Bell.

As a SIMA intern at the NAA this summer and with an interest in working in museum archives in the future, I found the presentations and working conclusions that the SIMA students offered intriguing. The theme of caring prompted me to ask another question that SIMA engages with: how do we provide and care for museums and how do they provide and care for us? Museums are dynamic spaces; they hold different meanings and possibilities for different people. Laurence “Anthonie” Tumpag (Master’s, Anthropology, Northern Illinois University), in his presentation “Cordillera Utensils as Mnemonic Devices Across Time and Space,” spoke about how museums can be organized as spaces for examining issues and feelings around identity—specifically in terms of his own exhibitions at Northern Illinois University and in reference to the Field Museum’s 10,000 Kwentos project. Tumpag cares for and uses these museum spaces to present part of his identity: Filipino culture. In turn, each of these spaces have given Tumpag a platform to engage the public. Naomi Recollet (Master’s, Faculty of Information, University of Toronto), an Anishinaabe from Mantoulin Island in Central-Northern Ontario, also showed her caring for museums when she posed the following questions to the Symposium attendees: how do you keep community researchers’ experiences positive? Why are some materials categorized and labeled in outdated ways? How can we explore indigenous knowledge and pedagogies as a way to understand the material? In the context of Recollet’s ongoing work with historic birch bark containers used for maple syrup collecting, the answer is deeply personal and ties to her community’s push to maintain and revitalize traditions. But as she demonstrated through opening up collections to different ways of knowing, museums can begin to shift their practices and decolonize their spaces. These are vital and challenging questions for museums, and SIMA provides the space for students, curators, archivists, and other people working with cultural heritage materials to confront them.

Alice Griffin: contributions /

1 Comment

  1. thank you for your dedication to preservation!

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