JAIC 2005, Volume 44, Number 3, Article 4 (pp. 185 to 202)
JAIC online
Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 2005, Volume 44, Number 3, Article 4 (pp. 185 to 202)

THE LEGACY OF ANTHROPOLOGY COLLECTIONS CARE AT THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY

MICHELE AUSTIN, NATALIE FIRNHABER, LISA GOLDBERG, GRETA HANSEN, & CATHERINE MAGEE



3 SUMMARY OF SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION AND ACL HISTORY

Reconstructing the story of collections care is complicated by the movement of the collections between departments and buildings, and by the formation of new museums within the Smithsonian Institution (Smithsonian Institution, 1996). As departments, divisions and museums were formed, the collections were divided into various categories. When created in 1897, the Department of Anthropology was based on a broad concept of anthropology and included divisions of ethnology, historical and prehistoric archaeology, technology, history and biography, medicine, graphic arts, and religions. Curators and preparators in Anthropology worked with a variety of period costumes, statues, paintings, and many other types of objects which would later be moved to other departments, divisions, and museums within the Smithsonian, including the National Museum of American History (NMAH) and the National Museum of American Art (NMAA). Collections care in the Department of Anthropology reflected these diverse holdings, because the type of collections and materials changed as the Institution grew and was reorganized.

The Smithsonian Institution's earliest history is complex in its growth as both a scientific research institution and museum, which resulted from early collaborations between collectors, naturalists, and scientists. Earliest collections care records correspond to the 1857 move of collections into a building newly constructed on the Mall for this purpose, now known as the Castle. The quantity and scope of collections grew dramatically as a result of the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia; incoming items were temporarily housed in the Armory Building in Washington. In 1879, the Bureau of Ethnology, later renamed the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE), was established as a division for research about Native Americans. Its collections were initially housed within the United States National Museum (USNM).

A new building, also called the USNM, but now identified as the Arts and Industries building, was completed in 1881 to accommodate the increase in collections and attendant needs for additional storage and exhibition space. The new USNM was immediately overcrowded, and additional collections were stored in numerous off-site facilities which were also used by exhibit preparators and other staff working with the collections. The last USNM building, later renamed the National Museum of Natural History, was erected in 1910 to house collections including fine arts, natural history, science and technology, and anthropology. By 1955, a distinct Office of Exhibits was created to centrally serve the exhibition needs of all departments. In 1957, the USNM was divided into the Museum of Natural History (now NMNH) and the Museum of History and Technology (now NMAH). In 1964, they were physically separated by the opening of a new building for the Museum of History and Technology.

In 1965, conservation and collections care activities in the NMNH Department of Anthropology were divided into two units: the Processing Laboratory (now renamed Collections Management) and the ACL (formerly known as the Anthropological Laboratory). At the same time the BAE merged with the Department of Anthropology to become the Smithsonian Office of Anthropology (SOA); three years later the name reverted to the Department of Anthropology. In the mid-1970s, collections were inventoried as mandated by Congress, and the collected data was used to plan for a complete collections move. Between 1985 and 2003, the majority of anthropology collections were moved to the MSC.


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