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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.

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.

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