Museum Collecting Guide as Cultural Heritage

Today I was given a copy of the 1977 Guide to Field Collecting of Ethnographic Specimens, an information leaflet written by the late William C. Sturtevant, Curator of North American Ethnology at the National Museum of Natural History. For a Smithsonian publication, the 42-page document is nothing spectacular: it has no photographs, no table of contents, no bibliography or recommended sources, no index. In fact, this particular copy was headed for the paper shredder until I told its previous owner I would be interested in saving it for my own collection. You might ask: Why did I offer this 33-year-old museum reference material a second life?

1977 Guide to Field Collecting of Ethnographic Specimens (photo credit: Nicholas Merkelson)

As a student of cultural heritage and current intern in museum anthropology, I am fascinated by the history of museum collecting, especially the motivations behind this endeavor and the ways great collections such as the Smithsonian’s were formed. One might say I am interested in the Why and How behind the fields of museology and cultural studies, and yes I do believe they are interrelated and integrated.

There may be nothing outwardly exceptional about the year 1977 in terms of ethnographic object collection by museums (Do you know of anything??). However, consider this artifact–a skinny, black-and-white, little distributed treatise on collecting anthropological objects–in relation to earlier and later instances and methods of collecting, and all of a sudden Sturtevant’s guide becomes a veritable snapshot of the state of museum anthropology at that single period in time. We can see what drove curators to collect (“Artifacts provide important evidence for culture history: although the forms are highly subject to change and replacement, the artifacts themselves are concrete and often very durable”) and how they practiced this (“Collecting should proceed apace with the elaboration of inventory lists and work on local classifications…Objects are normally acquired by gift, by purchase, or by trade for other objects or services”). Sturtevant even offers a 21-point list–he says “exhaustive classification”–of material culture and technology that the ethnographer might deem worthy of collection. My favorite: #21, Trade goods (items collected or made for export). Can this be construed as somewhat of an admission of the touristic enterprise behind anthropology? What anthropologist goes into the field and doesn’t purchase something for someone back home? (I think this type of commercial exchange between researcher and subject has both benefits and drawbacks to scholarship.)

Lastly, I think such dated material offers a compelling zeitgeist of the moods behind Sturtevant’s writing.  He observes: “In reaction to the depredations of the international art and antiquities market, many museums in recent years have instituted policies prohibiting the acceptance of artifacts that are not accompanied by evidence of legal export from the country of origin.” We must remember this was written less than a decade after UNESCO 1970 and just four years after the Smithsonian adopted its own policy (1973) on museum acquisitions.

I am happy to have contributed to the preservation of this aging portrait of the Smithsonian’s museum collecting theory and practice. There may be only a few remaining copies of the 1977 Guide, and perhaps even fewer of the original first edition from 1967, but I know there exists at least one copy now safely residing in the private library of a concerned global citizen.

This entry was posted in anthropology, collections, culture, museums, Smithsonian, UNESCO. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Museum Collecting Guide as Cultural Heritage

  1. I have been concerned over the past few years at the rate of 'modernisation' of museums here in the UK. I'd like to see a museum of museums. While we rush to better display and catalogue the material held in public collections we start to lose sight of the why, what, when and how of the original collection. That little book holds part of the key!

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