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On Archival Access in a Pandemic

Catherine A. Nichols

Exchanging Objects and my broader research agenda considers how and why certain objects left museums, institutions so often associated with preservation, archiving, and keeping. It can be an odd thing, to go to a museum to intentionally study things that aren’t there. When the idea for this research was suggested to me by anthropologist Nancy Parezo, I admit I was first puzzled, then intrigued.

Thirty years prior, as Nancy tells it, in the waning days of her post-doc at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, she stumbled across a set of records at the Smithsonian Institution Archives pertaining to exchanges of anthropological objects, referred to by curators as ‘duplicates’. The exchange records themselves are mostly catalogue-style lists enfolded in bureaucratic correspondence. But when you begin to follow the archival breadcrumbs, things get interesting.

Thousands of catalogued anthropological specimens, not to mention hundreds of thousands natural history specimens, were routinely removed from the Smithsonian’s collections in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They went to small towns in middle America, as well as a host of international destinations: Paris, Shanghai, Sao Paolo, Melbourne… While the traffic in scientific objects has and continues to be a global phenomenon, museums have largely been viewed as repositories, not suppliers. It wasn’t only the Smithsonian who was shedding their duplicates, nearly all the major (and many of the minor) museums were involved.

Catherine Nichols in the anthropology collections at the Museum Support Center, Smithsonian Institution in Suitland, MD. Photo Credit: Nancy Parezo

In the last decade, exploring the reasons and rationales for exchanging specimens has markedly increased, reflecting engagements with theories of mobility and exchange, as well as attention to the social and institutional networks that museums exist within. How effectively a researcher can do this depends first on if the records exist (they don’t always, but in general, museums are decent record-keepers), and if you can get access.

While access to physical repositories for academic researchers may hinge on time and money, the COVID-19 pandemic has upset timelines and plans in ways I could not have imagined a decade ago. Though it took me about a year to assemble the resources I needed to spend my days pouring over ledgers and gently unfolding withering papers in Washington, DC, I enjoyed the luxury of being able to devote myself to piecing together the intricate details of anthropological specimen exchange at the Smithsonian for months on end. For all the researchers whose best laid plans were to undertake projects fashioned under a similar model in the last year, they have found themselves shut out, along with museum and archival staff alike.

Now more than ever, archival and museum holdings in digital format are not only in demand, but it’s also simply all there practically is. In response, archivists and collections managers working from home provide access to whatever they can – from directing researchers to digital files hosted on websites, to combing through folders kept on cloud storage systems. An informal network has also sprung up, and I found myself with the opportunity to share information and digital files sitting on my computer hard drive that may be useful to researchers who are waiting for some semblance of scholarly inquiry in the pre-pandemic times to return.

While digitization and digital access has increased significantly in the last decade, the enormity of what remains in analog format approaches an abyss. And specimen exchange records, the ones that I relied on so heavily in Exchanging Objects? Those have never been high-use items, perhaps because of the dissonance involved with study things in a museum whose absence constitutes their relevance. I often think to myself, those will never get digitized.

While I lament what I hope will be the temporary shuttering of museums and archives, this moment has also been a time to sit with persistent questions about access. Access to museums and archives has always involved some degree of gate-keeping, reflecting a desire to balance availability and preservation. While this is justifiable, limits on physical access have too often excluded people who have relationships with things kept in repositories that don’t neatly register as ‘scholarly’. Even if folks can get in, archival reading rooms and museum research areas are not wholesale welcoming places for everyone and there are both explicit and implicit rules and norms of behavior. A somewhat humorous example of this would be the intercepting speed with which an archivist can move when they spy a patron placing friable historic documents in the copy machine’s automatic document feeder. But this current situation has been a powerful reminder that unless you have the time, money, credentials, knowledge, and legible justification, physical archives and museum collections are typically inaccessible for most people. The promise to equitably increase access via digitization, or engage in digital repatriation, I think is well-intentioned, and in many cases successful when undertaken collaboratively, but this pandemic has brought forth just how far there is to go.

In closing, I return to Nancy’s story of how she stumbled across these records, and how she held the memory of them for three decades before passing the idea to me. As a Smithsonian fellow, my ID badge was magic. Not only did it mean you could inhabit the archives for days and weeks on end, politely requesting nearly any record unit available, it also meant that you could pad the silenced hallways of the exhibits afterhours, steeped in noiseless wonder so different from hours earlier amongst the din of elevator buttons, exclaiming children, and hordes of tourists. There’s a lot of power in the badge, and incredible privilege. And for those of us that have had that have held that privileged position and watch as its promises of the joy of discovery have evaporated during this pandemic, I am reminded of how pressing the need is seriously consider what access means and what it lacks, as well as the limits of digitization in efforts toward equity.

Catherine A. Nichols is an Advanced Lecturer in Cultural Anthropology and Museum Studies at Loyola University Chicago, where she serves as Director and Curator of the May Weber Ethnographic Study Collection. Previously she was the Assistant Curator at Arizona State University’s Museum of Anthropology. Her work on exchanges at the Smithsonian Institution and Field Museum has been published in Museum AnthropologyMuseum and Society, and History and Anthropology. In addition to curatorial work, she is currently developing critical digital projects with museum databases and archival systems.

About the book

Nineteenth-Century Museum Anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution
Catherine A. Nichols

As an historical account of the exchange of “duplicate specimens” between anthropologists at the Smithsonian Institution and museums, collectors, and schools around the world in the late nineteenth century, this book reveals connections between both well-known museums and little-known local institutions, created through the exchange of museum objects. It explores how anthropologists categorized some objects in their collections as “duplicate specimens,” making them potential candidates for exchange. This historical form of what museum professionals would now call deaccessioning considers the intellectual and technical requirement of classifying objects in museums, and suggests that a deeper understanding of past museum practice can inform mission-driven contemporary museum work.

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