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Friday, November 17, 2017

Robert T. Smith "Smitty" at the National Anthropological Archives: Part Two

This post is the second in a series of blog posts written by George Washington University students in Dr. Joshua A. Bell's anthropology graduate seminar Visual Anthropology: The Social Lives of Images (Anthro 3521/6591), Fall 2016 graduate course. Dr. Bell is the Curator of Globalization in the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History's Department of Anthropology.  Students in this course chose a collection that features visual materials (drawings, film, photographs, or paintings) from the National Anthropological Archives, and researched its material, thinking through the scale and scope of the collection and situating it within the wider discipline of anthropology. These collections are available for research at the National Anthropological Archives 

For part one of this blog post, please click here

Photo of loose colored sketch of “Bush Pandanus,” MS 2014-06: Papers and Artwork of Robert T. Smith, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

Smitty was not a proclaimed ethnographer, but his collection of typed and written notes (see example, image 2) provide rich ethnographic detail of his daily life, opinions, and interactions with local people in Bougainville and New Guinea. The materials point to the kinds of work Smitty engaged in, and how he spent his time and thoughts during this unique situation in New Guinea—but we cannot know for certain why he engaged in this work. Perhaps he was bored. Or, more likely, he had a deep interest for natural history, and by extension anthropology, which continued to manifest throughout his life in different ways—for example, in bird watching. As much information and meaning we can gather from this collection, it is also worthwhile to acknowledge the information that is simply not available. In this way, we can see how those who engage with these materials become integral to their interpretation, significance, and continued social life in new milieus over time (including me as I write this post).

The collection contains a lot of written text. In addition to Smitty’s personal notes, the collection contains vast collections of folk tales—this includes correspondence with anthropologists such as Dr. C. A. Schmitz in the early 1960s about obtaining copies of these tales, and letters indicating their eventual (partial) publication. These folk tales greatly influenced Smitty’s own work—but based on his extensive sketchbook, so did the physical environment around him. Written text, particularly for ethnographers, represents the dominant methodology and way of seeing, telling, and sharing of field research (Geismar 2014). Drawing has not been developed fully as a method for anthropologists, but scholars of visual culture emphasize the ability of drawings to provide a “counter-narrative for fieldwork and dominant paradigms of visual representation” (Gesimar 2014:98).


 Photo of page in sketchbook, “One of my first air raids, March 43, ” MS 2014-06: Papers and Artwork of Robert T. Smith, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution. 

Typically, sketches are hidden components of notebooks, filling spaces between text and never finding a public life of their own. By making Smith’s personal collection visible, how may we “recuperate lost stories of personal experience and alternative histories of ideas” (Geismar 2014:97)? Smith’s sketches depict images we would not typically associate with military activity, indicating his sensitivity to the nuances of his surrounding environment (see images 3 and 4). Note the micro-view of flora in image 3 and the care Smith takes to detail its shapes and colors. Rather than knowing whether or not this “bush pandanus” is a precise copy of what is in front of Smith, the bright colors and particular perspective may “undermine the naturalism of the sketch” (Geismar 2014: 98)—perhaps giving us insight into the illustrator’s subjectivity, methodology, and emotional/ sensual/ visual proximity to the object in addition to the object itself.

And what are we to make of Smith’s depiction of one of his first air raids (see image 4)? The blues and contrasts of light suggest to me beauty more than the notion of fear a first military “raid” might be assumed to entail. These sketches (what and how Smith sketched) not only portray the aesthetics of local and military life in these regions, but also hint to how Smith interpreted what he saw—they shine light on his own subject position in the field that complicates his fixed role as military personnel/ethnographer. In “What do Drawings Want,” Michael Taussig romanticizes the potential of drawing in contrast to photographs, and perhaps rightfully so. He writes, discussing John Berger (2007), “a photograph stops time, while a drawing encompasses it” (Taussig 2009:265). Creating images through drawings inevitably takes a greater amount of time then capturing that image in a photograph. Drawings also indicate a more intimate connection between creator and object, inevitably exposing the subject position and viewpoint of creator in a different way than photography. And, in the case of Smith’s collection, in a way that complements the text and gives it deeper nuance of life and meaning.

Portrait, MS 2014-06: Papers and Artwork of Robert T. Smith, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.  According to donors of collection, “The enclosed portrait was the individual who was Smitty’s guide of many years.” 
According to his friends, Donna and Sue, Smitty was “an intensely private person, he revealed very little about family or his past life, except stories he loved to tell about New Guinea or Greece, two of his favorite places to travel” (Ewing and Minahan n.d.). Smith may have kept his drawings private, feeling more inclined to publish written text—but the drawings and text together continue to tell vivid stories, and are further imbued with meaning as they live on in the NAA. One of the most fascinating pieces of Smith’s collection is a large framed portrait of “Smitty’s guide of many years” (image 5). But the collection does not explicitly say: who was this guide, and how did he and Smitty meet? Where did this fabulous portrait live before coming to NAA? Did it reside among the other artifacts of Smith’s life? What kind of history and network of relationships does this material subsume? What story does this—can this— portrait and collection continue to tell? Rather than strictly telling one particular story, the Robert T. Smith collection—mixed like all mixed boxes (Edwards and Hart 2004)—is “syncretic” of life. The materials live on at NAA where they continue to garner life history.

Evy Vourlides, Ph.D. Student, Anthropology
George Washington University

*Please be aware that the Robert T. Smith Papers at the National Anthropological Archives are currently unprocessed; please contact the Reference Archivist for access information.

References:
Berger, John. 2007. Berger on Drawing, Edited by Jim Savage. London: Occasional Press.
Edwards, Elizabeth and Janice Hart. 2004. “Mixed Box: The Cultural Biography of a Box of
'Ethnographic' Photographs.” In Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart, eds. Photographic Objects Histories: On the Materiality of Images, 47-61. London: Routledge.

Ewing, Donna and Sue Minahan to Robert T. Smith. n.d. “Robert T. Smith Papers (Unprocessed)” The National Anthropological Archives. Smithsonian Institution.

Geismar, Haidy. 2014. “Drawing It Out.” Visual Anthropology Review 30: 97-113.

Taussig, Michael. 2009. “What Do Drawings Want?” Culture, Theory & Critique 50(2-3): 263-274.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Robert T. Smith “Smitty” at the National Anthropological Archives: Part One

This post is the first in a series of blog posts written by George Washington University students in Dr. Joshua A. Bell's anthropology graduate seminar Visual Anthropology: The Social Lives of Images (Anthro 3521/6591), Fall 2016 graduate course. Dr. Bell is the Curator of Globalization in the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History's Department of Anthropology.  Students in this course chose a collection that features visual materials (drawings, film, photographs, or paintings) from the National Anthropological Archives, and researched its material, thinking through the scale and scope of the collection and situating it within the wider discipline of anthropology.  These collections are available for research at the National Anthropological Archives.


Photo of Robert T. Smith (middle figure), MS 2014-06: Papers and Artwork of Robert T. Smith, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution. The location of the photograph is not indicated on the physical copy, but according to Dr. Joshua Bell, Curator of Globalization at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, it “appears to be West Papua or Southeast Asia from the boat.”

The Robert T. Smith papers comprise an unprocessed collection at the National Anthropological Archives generated by Smith (or “Smitty”) during his military service in the Pacific Theatre of World War II. Smith (1918–1998) served in the US Army and upon his retirement in the late 1960s was a Sergeant First Class (Army Service number—20744201). Smith’s papers indicate a unique perspective of military life in the South West Pacific and provide insight into the subjectivity of an individual who interacted intricately with his surroundings through collecting stories and sketching. The items enclosed in this mixed collection include several photographs; one painting; a 100-page sketchbook; an 8x10 notebook containing drawings of people, flora, and fauna (some of incredible color); pages of both written and typed folktales; and a three-inch stack of letters in Tok Pisin (a creole spoke across the South West Pacific).

The papers are also accompanied by a number of descriptive texts, including a biography and details from two of Smith’s friends, Donna Ewing and Sue Minahan who passed on his collection to the National Anthropological Archives (NAA). From these texts, we learn that Smith spent 1943-1944 in Guadalcanal, Bougainville (Piva-Torokina) and New Guinea, where he remained after the end of the war on missions to locate the remains of downed aircraft crews. Smith’s military career afforded him space to express his affinity for sketch and keen eye and interest in his surrounding environments, including flora and fauna of the South Western Pacific. During his stay in Bougainville and New Guinea, Smith became interested in its people and culture—he became fluent in Tok Pisin, spent time sketching local residents and topography (he also served as a cartographer for several years), noted daily events and folktales, and documented his perspective of military life. According to an undated letter from Donna and Sue, New Guinea became one of Smith’s favorite places to visit and he made subsequent trips back throughout his life. Smith retired from the military in the 1960s with the rank of Sergeant First Class and lived out the rest of his life in Sierra Vista, Arizona, where he became an avid bird watcher. His friends note that bird watchers from around the world sought him out for “his expertise about the birds of Southeastern Arizona and in particular the Mexican Spotted Owl and the Elegant Trogon” (Ewing and Minahan n.d.).

Manuscript Material, MS 2014-06: Papers and Artwork of Robert T. Smith, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

This contextual information is incredibly helpful, but how can we approach the material items of the collection itself with equal importance and telling power as the text? In such a mixed collection the materiality of enclosed items, both separately and together in conversation, is loaded with meaning—how can we access this complexity and perhaps fluidity of meaning? Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart (2004) refer to (mixed) Box 54 in a photographic collection at University of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, as a synthetic object of linked but separate parts…that have interacted, and continue to interact, with each other and with the institution in which they are housed, to produce a succession of meanings that are broader and more complex than a simple sum of various parts (47).

With this in mind, Smith’s papers become a rich collection of ethnographic evidence of his own subjectivity as military personnel/researcher; of military experience in the South West Pacific more generally; the military’s interaction with local people and the environment in Bougainville and New Guinea during World War II; and perhaps even evidence of the interests and priorities of NAA and its curators, namely Joshua A. Bell (curator of the Melanesian collection at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History) who was notified of the material and proposed it to the archive. Keeping the “mixed box” in mind, small material details such as rusty paper clip stains on papers become important identifiers of time, order, and belonging. Instead of treating these sketches, photographs, and writings as merely “documents,” the style, coloration, and method of drawing and writing become signifiers of life course and interaction of these papers with their changing environments, with each other, and with their entangled human subjects and subjectivities.

Evy Vourlides, Ph.D. Student, Anthropology
George Washington University

*Please be aware that the Robert T. Smith Papers at the National Anthropological Archives are currently unprocessed; please contact the Reference Archivist for access information.

References:
Berger, John. 2007. Berger on Drawing, Edited by Jim Savage. London: Occasional Press.

Edwards, Elizabeth and Janice Hart. 2004. “Mixed Box: The Cultural Biography of a Box of
'Ethnographic' Photographs.” In Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart, eds. Photographic Objects Histories: On the Materiality of Images, 47-61. London: Routledge.

Ewing, Donna and Sue Minahan to Robert T. Smith. n.d. “Robert T. Smith Papers (Unprocessed)” The National Anthropological Archives. Smithsonian Institution.

Geismar, Haidy. 2014. “Drawing It Out.” Visual Anthropology Review 30: 97-113.

Taussig, Michael. 2009. “What Do Drawings Want?” Culture, Theory & Critique 50(2-3): 263-274.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Hello Halloween, Farewell American Archives Month

Swampee, the USCGC Northland ship mascot, would like to wish you a Happy Halloween and last day of the American Archives Month! Photograph from the Leuman Maurice Waugh collection, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, L02029.
On this Halloween day, we say farewell to American Archives Month and the Collection Search Center’s blog-a-thon.

Over the past month, we explored the theme of the Power of Collaboration which included stories of “volunpeers” transcribing Smithsonian collections, artists collaborating with museums, an initiative to train community members to preserve religious records, collaborative partnerships between museums and Native communities, and the importance and value of these community collaborations. We also explored stories of cultural resilience in times of catastrophe, memories of an old (but not dead) photographic technology, a travelogue film shot in the American South, and the Archives Fair celebrating performance and preservation. We encourage you to read (or re-read!) all the stories from this past month.

Although American Archives Month technically ends today, it does not mean that our collaborative efforts will end as well. Collaboration is deeply ingrained in the work of archivists, librarians, and museum professionals. Collaboration has made such online initiatives as the Smithsonian Transcription Center, Collections Search Center, and the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives (SOVA) a reality. And it is through the power of collaboration- with colleagues, scholars, artists, and social and cultural communities- that we will continue to fulfill the Smithsonian’s mission to ‘increase and diffuse knowledge.’

Emily Moazami, Assistant Head Archivist
National Museum of the American Indian

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Role of Portraiture in the Alliance of the United States and France

After the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, and after the American Continental Congress had chosen the “United States” as the name for the new nation, the Congress adopted a model commercial treaty for France on September 17, 1776. One month later, Benjamin Franklin, one of the seven Founding Fathers, traveled to France with this model treaty, aiming to secure assistance in the war against Britain. After negotiations, in March 1778, King Louis XVI presented Franklin with the trade and defense alliance treaties, which had been signed in Paris on February 6 of that year. Through these treaties, the French extended their support to the Americans in the Revolutionary War.  Portraiture celebrated and strengthened the relationship between our two countries.

Benjamin Franklin, by Joseph Siffred Duplessis, c. 1785, oil on canvas,
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. (NPG.87.43)
Franklin’s fame as a philosopher, scientist, and statesman brought attention to the American cause, and he drew admirers among the French court at Versailles and in various intellectual circles. He served as minister to France from 1778 until 1785, and his likeness was captured in formal portraits as well as pieces made for popular culture by French artists. Joseph Siffred Duplessis, court painter to King Louis XVI, depicted Franklin’s strength of character in a series of paintings and pastels, with the earliest version garnering public attention at the 1779 Salon du Louvre exhibition. Leading artist Jean-Antoine Houdon, who created sculpture busts of several Founding Fathers, including Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington, portrayed these subjects in neo-classical robes or historical costumes relating to democratic ideals.

In 1784, Houdon was commissioned to create a full-length marble statue of Washington for the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, which led him to accompany Franklin on a trip to America. He visited George Washington at Mount Vernon in October 1785 and cast a life mask of him, which he used for his sculpture bust series, and in turn influenced other artists’ depictions. Although Washington never visited France, his image was celebrated in numerous portraits as president and military leader.

Thomas Jefferson, by Mather Brown, 1786, oil on canvas,
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. (NPG.99.66)
Statesman and philosopher Thomas Jefferson was portrayed in 1786, during his tenure as an American Minister in Paris, in a refined and formal manner by artist Mather Brown. This oil painting went to his friend John Adams and descended in the Adams family. Adams and Jefferson were brought together as trade negotiators in France, and they exchanged portraits as tokens of their friendship. In the portrait’s background, there is an allegorical sculpture of the figure of Liberty, holding a pole with a Phrygian cap at the top. Jefferson admired French culture and supported the country’s political ideals. From 1840 to 1848, King Louis-Philippe commissioned artist George Peter Alexander Healy to create a portrait series of American presidents and statesmen for the historical collection at the Château de Versailles, which included John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, John Paul Jones, George Washington, and Daniel Webster.

Several important group portraits documented the battles of the Revolutionary War and the following American treaty meetings with France and Britain. Around 1825, John Vanderlyn painted an oil portrait of George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette that places them at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777.  Washington was impressed by the valor of young Lafayette who was wounded at this battle and recommended him for the command of a division in a letter to Congress. Lafayette was a heroic figure, who provided his own support and influenced state officials to send more French aid and forces to fight alongside the American military. King Louis-Philippe commissioned artist Auguste Couder to create the 1836 oil portrait of the Siege of Yorktown for the Château de Versailles (Galerie des Batailles). Generals George Washington, Comte de (Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur) Rochambeau, and Marquis (Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert) de Lafayette and other military officers are depicted with the Siege of Yorktown on October 17, 1781, in the background. This battle was a critical victory when the British General Earl Charles Cornwallis surrendered to Generals Washington and Rochambeau and the combined American and French military forces. Benjamin West portrayed the principal American Peace Commissioners John Jay, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Laurens, and William Temple Franklin in two unfinished oil studies from 1783 for a larger painting, which was never executed of the Signing of the Treaty of Paris. The Treaty of Paris was signed by representatives of the King George III government of Great Britain and the United States of America on September 3, 1783, in Paris, thereby ending the American Revolutionary War. This treaty and the separate peace treaties between Great Britain and the nations that supported the American cause—France, Spain, and the Dutch Republic—were known collectively as the Peace of Paris.

George Washington, by Jean-Antoine Houdon, c. 1786, plaster,
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. (NPG. 78.1)
Historic American portrait collections are at the Musée Carnavalet, Musée du Louvre, Musée National du Château de Versailles, Musée National de la Légion d’Honneur, and the Musée du Château de Blérancourt in France. Musée National de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris has created a special exhibition area to feature the portraits of honored American recipients of the order. On August 8, 1929, Anne Morgan presented a museum to France, which became the Musée National de la Cooperation Franco-Américain du Château de Blérancourt. This museum’s collection showcases the historical, cultural, and artistic relations of our two nations from the seventeenth century to the present. In America, the Society of the Cincinnati was founded in May 1783, and a French branch of the Society was established in January 1784. The two associations honor the military officers of our two nations who fought in the American War for Independence and seek to maintain the friendship between the United States and France. The Society of the Cincinnati Museum in Washington, DC, has a notable portrait collection of leading American and French officers who participated in the American Revolutionary War.

In 1966, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery founded the Catalog of American Portraits (CAP), a national portrait archive of historically significant subjects and artists from the colonial period to the present day. The public is welcome to access the online portrait search program of more than 100,000 records from the museum’s website: http://npg.si.edu/portraits/research.

Patricia H. Svoboda, Research Coordinator
Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery



Websites:
Figure of Louis XVI and Benjamin Franklin, by Charles-Gabriel Sauvage, called Lemire Pere, c. 1780–85, porcelain,  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY (83.2.260)
https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/4894?sortBy=Relevance&ft=benjamin+franklin+and+louis+xvi&offset=0&rpp=20&pos=2

John Adams, by Mather Brown, 1788, oil on canvas, Boston Athenaeum, MA, (B.A.UR.72)
 https://www.bostonathenaeum.org/about/publications/selections-acquired-tastes/john-adams-1788

George Peter Alexander Healy portrait collection, Musée National du Château de Versailles, FR
http://musee.louvre.fr/bases/lafayette/3110.php?lng=1&texte=&artiste=%22george+healy+peter+alexander%22&titre=&localisation=&date=&periode=&domaine=&images_sans=sans&submit=Start+the+search&nb_par_page=36&tri=Nom&sens=0

Washington and Lafayette at the Battle of Brandywine, by John Vanderlyn, c. 1825, oil on canvas, Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, OK, (0126.1018)
https://collections.gilcrease.org/object/01261018

Siege of Yorktown, 17 October 1781, by Auguste Couder, 1836, oil on canvas, Musée National du Château de Versailles, FR, (MV 2747)
http://collections.chateauversailles.fr/#6863d5d4-9e6b-4058-a3f1-0f3a739459d1

American Commissioners of the Preliminary Peace Negotiations with Great Britain, by Benjamin West, c. 1783–1819, oil on canvas, Winterthur Museum, DE, (1957.0856)
http://museumcollection.winterthur.org/single-record.php?resultsperpage=20&view=catalog&srchtype=advanced&hasImage=&ObjObjectName=&CreOrigin=&Earliest=&Latest=&CreCreatorLocal_tab=&materialsearch=&ObjObjectID=&ObjCategory=Paintings&DesMaterial_tab=&DesTechnique_tab=&AccCreditLineLocal=&CreMarkSignature=&recid=1957.0856&srchfld=&srchtxt=benjamin+west&id=2de3&rownum=1&version=100&src=results-imagelink-only#.WfFQN02Ww5Q 

Bibliography:
General Editor Valérie Bajou et al. Versailles and the American Revolution. Versailles: Palace of Versailles and Montreuil: Gourcuff Gradenigo Publisher, 2016.

Ferreiro, Larrie D. Brothers at Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It. New York: Vintage Books, A Division of Penguin Random House LLC, 2017.

Taylor, Alan. American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2016.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Flashback Friday: Smithsonian Hauntings


Joseph Henry, first Smithsonian Secretary
Smithsonian Institution Archives, image # MAH-10603. 
As Halloween approaches, the mind wanders to ghostly hauntings and where better than a museum to find a ghost? There are plenty of skeletons in Smithsonian closets and rumors of hauntings abound.

Though several people have claimed sightings of Joseph Henry, our first Secretary, haunting the Smithsonian Institution Building, or Castle, it’s unlikely he would walk those grounds. Henry was so deeply skeptical of spirits and hauntings that he once offered $1,000 if someone could levitate a table into the air. In addition, Henry never particularly liked the Smithsonian Institution Building, considering the maintenance of a building a hindrance to the work of furthering scientific research.  It’s highly unlikely that his spirit would take up residence in a building he though was “a fantastic and almost useless building.

Fielding Meek's Cat, Smithsonian Institution Archives, image # 92-15019.
Another Smithsonian Scientist, Fielding Meek, happily called the Smithsonian Castle home. He lived with his cat in a tiny room under the stairs in the North Tower of the Smithsonian Institution Building from 1858 until his death. An extremely introverted and deaf paleontologist, he became increasingly isolated as he lost his hearing in his later years. His isolation can be felt in his caption for a sketch of his cat “This is all the family I have.” Perhaps he haunts his former home in search of company?

Spencer F. Baird,
Smithsonian Institution Archives, image # MAH-10735
Many rumors swirl about Smithsonian staff who loved their collections so much they could not bear to part with them, even in death. Perhaps none is as persistent as Spencer F. Baird, the Smithsonian’s second Secretary and founder of the U.S. National Museum. In 1900, The Washington Post reported that most of the night watchmen had reported seeing Secretary Baird supervising the collections to which he was so devoted.  Night watchmen, as you can imagine, have seen more than their fair share of strange sightings at the Smithsonian, but some are more otherworldly than others. Donald, one of the night watchmen, turned a corner in the museum and had a run-in with a fearsome Japanese warrior who towered above him, spear and all. After fleeing to higher ground on the second level of the building, in the morning he discovered that his warrior ghost was just a mannequin removed from his case so that it could be photographed. 



Robert Kennicott in his Field Outfit,
Smithsonian Institution Archives, image # SIA2011-0145
Around the Smithsonian, it is not unusual for an old mystery to come back to haunt us. Here at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, Robert Kennicott, one of the Smithsonian’s earliest explorers, was the most recent to raise goosebumps.  Kennicott died mysteriously on an expedition in Alaska. Our colleagues over at the National Museum of Natural History have analyzed his bones to understand how he lived and died.  While many researchers have scoured his personal papers and Smithsonian records in search of an answer, our archivists made a serendipitous discovery that sheds a little more light on his death. This Halloween, the Smithsonian has taken Kennicott's skeleton out of our closet and you can visit him yourself in the Objects of Wonder exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History.





Lisa Fthenakis, Program Assistant
Smithsonian Institution Archives 

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Science of Language Revitalization


Recovering Voices aims to make the Smithsonian’s collections more accessible and create opportunities for language and knowledge revitalization. We host workshops, symposia, seminars, and public events on a variety of topics, in collaboration with our partners within the Smithsonian and around the world. One of the largest programs we organize is the National Breath of Life Archival Institute for Indigenous Languages.

Over the past four iterations of the National Breath of Life, participants have contributed towards shaping the concept of a community researcher. They come from various professions, trades, and academic backgrounds, traveling together from their home communities to work on revitalizing or reclaiming their native language. They are, at the same time, cultural experts and advocates of language and cultural conservation. They are scholars of their language. After 2 weeks of linguistics instruction, they demonstrate a sound understanding and command of a number of linguistic tools and methodology, naturally draw on them, and actively utilize this science throughout their research projects.

The fourth National Breath of Life, hosted by the Smithsonian Institution and the Myaamia Center, successfully concluded on Friday June 9, 2017. The workshop ended with each group of community researchers presenting their final projects, demonstrating what they had learned and discovered, and what their research plans would be beyond Breath of Life. The 2-week institute and the final project presentations were evidence of the high caliber of knowledge, expertise, and scientific rigor acquired by Breath of Life participants.

Photographs held by archives are sometimes/many times/just as important as the manuscript materials. The Haida language group took some time to study photographs of historic Haida villages. Photo by James Di Loreto.

For their final project, the Hupa group chose a seemingly simplistic project to translate the meaning of a number of the Breath of Life participants’ names into the hupa language. The project turned out to be everything but simplistic! To achieve this, the researcher carried out an analysis of sociocultural particulars (death taboos, sociocultural roles), cultural values and equivalents across cultures (ethnographic analysis), community origins and archeological evidence for it (i.e. carved writing on stone at community house dated 10,000 years), as well as cross-linguistic etymological research. The project required knowledge of specialized vocabulary and sentence structure in the Hupa language.

For their final presentation, the Haida language group told a story in Haida. Photo by Ashleigh Arrington.

The Haida participants presented a Haida narrative from the archives, connecting it to new learnings about Haida grammar and culture, which they in turn presented with the help of photos from the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) collections. To do this, the research team determined that they needed to jointly transcribe into Haida the practical orthography in a text from the J.R. Swanton 1900-1901 materials in the National Anthropological Archives (NAA) collection - (Stiidgaa Ḵ’amaalaa #22), and identify grammatical forms of particular interest that are not commonly known. Finally, they highlighted interesting cultural contexts of the story as it relates to place, artifacts, and knowledge. This project demanded analysis of orthographic representation in archival documentation and an understanding of current orthographic practices, as well as careful analysis of syntax and semantics across two very structurally distinct languages. All of this accomplished in just a few days’ time.

Getting down to business, Myaamia Center and Recovering Voices staff meet with the Tututni group working on the RVIDA pilot. Photo by Judith Andrews.

One important mission of BOL is setting the researchers up for success post-BOL. After four years of workshops and follow up with participants, Directors Gabriela Pérez Báez and Daryl Baldwin recognized a need for a very precise tool that community researchers could use beyond BOL to manage the copious data that emerges from the archival research. In response to this need, this year BOL piloted the Recovering Voices Indigenous Digital Archive (RVIDA). Baldwin and Pérez Báez are now actively planning a roll out of RVIDA to be available to communities across North America.

Classroom instruction makes up only part of what the Breath of Life Community researchers learn during the Institute. Photo by Ashleigh Arrington.

It could be said that Breath of Life represents a snapshot of a growing trend in language reclamation and revitalization in North America and globally. Tribes and communities are seeking opportunities and support, and seizing them to both prevent further loss of culture and language, and to rebuild their communities and the language they share. Breath of Life is one program, held every two years, attempting to meet this growing demand and provide the training groups need to get to the next level. It is the hope that the Breath of Life model will continue to serve language revitalization and inspire the next generation of community research scientists.


Sarah Baburi, Recovering Voices Program Assistant
Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Confronting Asymmetries of Power through Collaboration


Collaboration is at the heart of the National Museum of the American Indian. As stewards of a vast number of archival and object collections of the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere, our role as museum employees is not solely to preserve these materials, but to actively seek out, develop, and hopefully repair sometimes strained relationships with the Native peoples of North, Central, and South America.

As evidenced by the many other blog posts this month, collaboration is nothing new to the Smithsonian Institution. Since its establishment in 1846 the Smithsonian has regularly worked with various local, state, and federal government agencies, diverse communities around the world, and sovereign nations in its mission to promote the “increase and diffusion of knowledge” among humankind.

Examples of a few of the NMAI Archive Center’s many collaborative projects include hosting the National Breath of Life Archival Institute for Indigenous Languages, working with Crow (Apsáalooke) community members to re-describe photograph collections, and partnering with representatives from the Poeh Cultural Center at Pojoaque Pueblo.

Anthony Gchachu, Octavius Seowtewa, and Jim Enote viewing Zuni object and archival collections at NMAI for inaccuracies in descriptive information, August 2017. Photograph by NMAI Conservation Fellow Megan Doxsey-Whitfield.
One of the more recent collaborative projects undertaken by the NMAI Archive Center has been working with members of the Zuni community and the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center in New Mexico. Jim Enote, Anthony Gchachu, and Octavius Seowtewa- three Zuni community members- visited the NMAI in August, working closely with the NMAI Archive Center staff.

Partnering with the Zuni community, and with Jim Enote in particular, has helped our staff to better define what collaboration actually entails. As noted in various writings and guidelines by Enote, collaborations between cultural heritage institutions and source communities represent a joint effort to “set the record straight” through co-labor on equal terms. Such collaborative endeavors not only confront and challenge the asymmetries of power which have existed for centuries, but also simultaneously aim to correct the historical records and underlying power imbalances.

A Zuni bowl related to the Hawikuh pottery ink drawing below. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (06/7670). Photograph by NMAI Photo Services
Hawikuh pottery ink drawings, such as the image above, can convey inaccurate or misleading information depending on the artist’s use of hash-lines, which represent different meanings for Zuni community members. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution.
Working together, Zuni members and NMAI staff commenced several projects to better describe and understand Zuni archival materials in our stewardship. These include:

• Creating an inventory of Zuni materials to share with community members (these consist of archival films, photographs, maps, manuscripts, ink drawings, and anthropological field notes); 

• Analyzing and reinterpreting archival descriptions of materials in order to correct inaccuracies or completely false information which exist in the records;

• Creating and defining different levels of access for particular archival materials, such as photographs or items relating to ceremonial knowledge, which may be deemed unsuitable due to cultural sensitivity restrictions

Many images in the NMAI Archive Center collections, such as this one depicting Zuni pottery work, can reveal much greater information via collaboration with source communities than would otherwise be known by museum staff alone. Photograph by George H. Pepper, 1918. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (N02277).
These projects represent just the beginning of an ongoing process of exchange and partnership between NMAI Archive Center staff and Zuni community members. Collaboration, or true and equal co-labor between all parties involved, is something that takes time and trust.

Nathan Sowry, Reference Archivist
National Museum of the American Indian