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Monday, October 11, 2010

Favorite items!

 In July, the National Anthropological Archives received a $323,000 ‘Save America’s Treasures’ grant from the President’s Committee on the Arts & Humanities. The grant is to help ensure long-term preservation and better access to the Archives’ endangered-languages manuscripts. Grant programs such as Save America’s Treasures [SAT][link] offer collection managers and archivists the opportunity to assess entire collections for condition. As part of the SAT grant, the National Anthropological Archives hired three interns:  Jessie Cohen, Shelly Buring, and Elspeth Kursh to perform an item-by-item rapid condition assessment survey of the endangered-languages manuscripts. The resulting documentation of the condition of each manuscript and identification of threats to its stability will help determine priority for reformatting and conservation treatments.

I asked Jessie, Shelly, and Elspeth to share selected items from the collection that especially captured their imaginations. Enjoy!
-Leanda Gahegan, Archivist

As you might imagine, over the course of this three-month long assessment we viewed a great deal of interesting items! In general, the numbered manuscripts collection is a miscellany of ethnographic, linguistic, archaeological and historical documents stemming from many different authors and contributors. Many of the items we assessed were field notes, cartographic material, drawings and photographs recorded and collected by BAE anthropologists during their field studies of various American Indian cultures. Other items included the personal effects of BAE anthropologists, correspondence between researchers and anthropologists, and other administrative documents. The following descriptions are of just a few of the interesting items within the collection. 

 Jessie Cohen:
Manuscript 7593-a Chinese miniature clothing for the dead  stood out against the American Indian documents: they are colorful and hand-crafted, making them eye-catching and they have a distinctive subject matter. Funerary customs in late Imperial China brought a sense of uniformity to a very diverse culture. With different traditions associated with the many milestones of life – marriage, birth, etc. – the traditions associated with rites of the dead were uniform across China regardless of class and status. The relationship between life and death was an important one in historic Chinese tradition. The emphasis of continuity between this world and the next was a major component in the ideological views of this ritualistic culture.

This particular manuscript folder consists of seven items of miniature, paper versions of both men’s and women’s clothing in various colors, including two pairs of pants, one skirt, and four robes. These miniature versions of clothing are examples of items that were used during the funerary process in Imperial China. Mock paper models of everyday items, such as money, clothing, houses, furniture and cars were offered to the deceased. These paper items were then burned as a means of transference from life to the afterlife. Other actions that were a part of the rites of passage included mourners wearing specific clothing, playing specific music during the process, and the physical movement and placement of the deceased into the coffin.

Surrounded by data regarding primarily anthropologically American-based research, these Chinese paper clothes are distinctive. I believe it is this distinction that makes this collection representative of a well-rounded anthropological collection. Anthropology and its many facets and processes are best demonstrated when they can be researched amongst various cultures. The Chinese funerary materials help broaden the scope of the Numbered Manuscripts collection.

Jessie Cohen has a Master’s degree in anthropology from Louisiana State University and a Certificate in Museum Studies from George Washington University. Her interests include museum and archival collections and stewardship, curatorial research, and anthropology and archaeology, particularly the anthropology of African American agency and experiences.

 Shelly Buring:
With my academic background in history rather than anthropology, I was especially interested in the glimpses of intellectual life in late 19th and early 20th century Washington offered by the personal papers of anthropologists affiliated with the Bureau of American Ethnology. In addition to their research of national and international importance, these scholars also established and sustained local cultural and social institutions in their capacities as prominent residents of the District of Columbia during one of its periods of dynamic growth. For example, John Wesley Powell, director of the Bureau of American Ethnology, was also one of the founders of The Cosmos Club in 1878, which survives in Washington today as a social club for professionals distinguished in science, literature, and the arts. Several anthropologists’ personal papers contain bundled receipts testifying to the payment of their Cosmos Club membership dues.
Similarly, ethnologist Alice Fletcher’s papers include her detailed documentation of a visit she paid to Leo Tolstoy in his home in 1907 which later informed the content of a Washington Literary Society meeting. When Fletcher asked Tolstoy for “some message to send to the Washington Literary Society”, of which she was an active member, he presented her with a signed copy of Tolstoy on Shakespeare, requesting that the society discuss his essay, “Shakespeare and the Drama”. In February of 1908, prominent local scholars, including former Librarian of Congress Ainsworth R. Spofford, presented papers (apparently mostly critical) on Tolstoy’s essay as requested. Fletcher assured Tolstoy in a subsequent letter that his essay was discussed by “scholarly men who spoke from the standpoint of high ideals as to literature, ethics, and religion.”

Shelly Buring is a second year Master’s student in the department of Museum Studies at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where she studies museum collections management and history. Her interests include preventative conservation, urban history, historic preservation, and Holocaust studies. She also holds a Master’s degree in elementary education.

Elspeth Kursh:
This unusual medallion has been owned by some of the great names in American Anthropology: Dorsey, Stirling, and Harrington, among others. As a historical object, it represents a crucially important chapter in American history: the last days the United States honored the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868.  This treaty, between the Lakota, the Dakota, other tribes and the government, was abandoned four years after its 1868 adoption because of the discovery of gold in the Black Hills; the medallion was cast the same year gold was discovered.  The resulting disagreements over the Black Hills, land sacred to the Lakota, led to the galvanizing of a young Lakota man named Sitting Bull, who famously defeated the American army in the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876.

The obverse of the medallion is embossed with four words meaning “Friendship of the Holy Sort to the Home of Xaokwin [probably the Dakota name of anthropologist James Dorsey].”  The reverse is a mercury mirror in excellent condition.  As a museum professional, I think about what the objects in my care have witnessed, and this beautiful, sad medallion offers a glimpse into a moment in time when much was changing in government- Indian relations.

Being able to see my own eye in the mirror while working with this object is a powerful reminder of my own role in preserving and documenting a full, rich story of the settlement of the American west.  In working to Save America’s Treasures, it is vital to remember that objects offer a many layered version of American history: one far more complicated than a single battle or biography. 

As a nation, our treasures include our ability to honestly examine our past deeds, and the metaphor of standing before a mirror is stunning appropriate with this medallion.  A fuller understanding of American history can only come through examining the previously overlooked moments: the last days of the Fort Laramie Treaty represent an entirely different view of the American west and the government-Indian relationship that would dominate the following years.

Catalog information: Medallion, approx. 1 ½” in diameter, with Dakota inscription on one side and mirror on the other.  Dated 1872.  A. L. S. from Matthew W. Stirling to John P. Harrington. N.d. The medallion was formerly in the possession of J Owen. Dorsey.  Manuscript 4815.

Elspeth Kursh is a contractor with the Smithsonian and a graduate student at George Washington in the Museum Studies program.  She believes that objects can be powerful tools to understanding history and loved working with the Numbered Manuscript collection of the National Anthropological Archives.

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