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  • Shared Values, Gifted ObjectsThe Smithsonian Institution’s Anthropological Duplicates
  • Catherine A. Nichols (bio)

Collaboration is a term often employed in museological practice with a directed emphasis on the application of collaborative methodologies to conventional forms of museum representations: exhibitions and programs. Collaboration has been a major concern for museums since the 1980s, and various practical models (Phillips 2003) have emerged as a result of experimentation and dissemination of experiential knowledge. Less well known historical practices, such as the exchange of duplicate museum specimens, have the potential to shape the terms of future collaborations by providing all participants—museum professionals, anthropologists, and members of originating communities—with knowledge of particular ways museums made use of their collections of cultural objects in the past. My purpose in chronicling the distribution of duplicate cultural museum specimens by the Smithsonian Institution to the Fairfield Public Library in Fairfield, Iowa, is to document a regular practice of museums and collectors in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, while arguing that these historical movements of museum specimens served specific purposes. Under the guise of education and mediated by politics, cultural objects were permanently removed from the Smithsonian Institution and redistributed to museums and educational institutions across the globe. Knowledge of this historical practice adds nuance to normative ideas about the museum as an institution of preservation.

From 1882 to 1894 the Fairfield Public Library received ten shipments of natural history and anthropological specimens as gifts from [End Page 32] the Smithsonian Institution. Five of the ten shipments were made up of Native North American ethnology and archaeology specimens, collected primarily by the Bureau of American Ethnology (bae). I examine the intellectual conditions under which these gifts occurred and how social and institutional factors shaped the negotiations. I argue that this practice served to create national popular understandings of anthropological subjects and methods of inquiry and to legitimize museums as educational institutions. I emphasize that the movement of anthropological specimens was made possible by shared institutional values and agendas. In conclusion, I argue that a focus on shared value systems may provide ways of negotiating the circulation of museum objects in contemporary collaborative relationships.

The Smithsonian’s Distribution of Duplicate Specimens

Natural history emerged as a discipline in sixteenth-century Europe. Naturalists produced a particular kind of knowledge using a set of distinctive techniques and methods. They relied upon close observation of formal and contextual characteristics of natural objects and the development of a shared language (both pictorial and linguistic) of description (Oglivie 2006). Natural historians described nature through the process of systematically cataloguing its products. Within this practice, they significantly expanded the knowledge of the diversity of natural objects through the negotiation of where the boundaries of difference lay, while at the same time they demarcated those differences through naming.

The growth of natural history museums can be understood as part of the arc of natural history’s influence and as a force in the creation of its disciplinary descendants—biology, geology, anthropology, etc. Natural history museums allowed for the centralization of catalogued and classified objects (specimens), facilitating taxonomy, systematics, and comparative studies that illustrated evolutionary theories (Bennett 2004: 19–24). The archival capacity of museums resulted in encyclopedic and universal collections, as museums allowed for practice of collective empirical inquiry by the scientific community. Both specimen collections and scientific publications, especially descriptive taxonomies, promoted scientific debates on the classification of natural diversity. Standardization of classificatory schemas allowed [End Page 33] for the continuation of scientific inquiry as well as the dissemination of agreed upon scientific knowledge from the academy to public educators and institutions.

Dissemination of scientific knowledge did not reside solely in the publication of facts and the memorization of scientific facts from books. Inquiry-based methods drawn from natural history were replicated in schools through the nature-study movement (Kohlstedt 2005). The nineteenth century also saw the expansion of the museum’s engagement from primarily repositories for scientific collections and knowledge production to sites that simultaneously engaged nonscientific publics with object-based edifications and representations. Exhibitions were the primary means of popular education. In the United States, object-based exhibitions were mounted in museum halls as well as at World’s Fairs...


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