By Chelsi Slotten with Emily Cain and Haley Bryant
Starting in 2015, we began a joint effort with the Anthropology Collections Management Unit to photograph and make digitally available the entire NMNH Arctic Ethnology collection which contains over 20,000 objects. As you might imagine, this is a huge undertaking. This initiative, called the Circumpolar Ethnology Imaging Project, has been highly successful. In the past year and seven months, over 6,300 objects have been digitized. We’re excited to announce a new element to that project. Starting this month we will be highlighting some of the amazing objects in our collection, and the process it takes to digitize them, that anyone can now access online at: https://collections.nmnh.si.edu/search/anth/.
The women behind this project, Emily Cain and Haley Bryant, will be talking about their favorite objects, the importance of this kind of work, one way that ethnology collections like this get digitized, highlighting the voices of those communities for whom this project is so important, and sharing our collection with you. To set the stage for this exciting new chapter in the Circumpolar Imaging Project I sat down with Emily and Haley to talk about their experience so far.
Q: Obviously a lot of objects have been digitized so far, what are some of your favorites?
EC: What a difficult question to answer, as I’m sure you can imagine. One of the things I love most about this project is the wide variety of objects I get to work with every day. The collection is very expansive, and the objects range in size from incredibly tiny, such as this carved ivory walrus, to fairly unwieldy, like this kayak. They also range in age from objects collected on 19th century expeditions (here’s a needlework neckband from the 1870s) to much more recent acquisitions from indigenous craftspeople (check out this basket with dyed seal gut woven by Lena Atti in the 1980s). The materials used across the Circumpolar region lend a broad array of textures as well, from rough, crepey fish skin to pillowy feathered bird breasts to smooth, glossy ivory. And in focusing on these sensory elements, I haven’t even mentioned the different geographic styles or delved into the histories of each of these objects. I would definitely encourage our readers to see if they can find a favorite of their own through the collections search online. It isn’t easy to choose.
HB: As a trained anthropologist, I’m definitely a history and information nerd so my favorite objects tend to be those that aren’t necessarily the most “visually impressive”, but those with the most interesting stories, uses, or histories of collection or possession. Unfortunately it’s the nature of museum collections in general that most of the objects we have in our collections have little contextual information about who made them, how they were used, what they’re made of, etc. This happens often because the information we have in our catalogue is the information that was provided by the person or persons who collected the object back in the late 1800’s (for example) and either no one was able to, or didn’t think to, collect more information about that object in the time since. Occasionally you can come across an object with much richer information either on a tag attached to the object, or in the information given by the original collector or donor. Of course, objects themselves tell their own stories: tears and breakages tell of use and repair, colors give information about specific dyes used, embellishments belie the importance or context of use for certain objects, and simple things like size, shape, and material speak volumes about an object’s purpose and indigenous value. For instance, Emily photographed this small piece of pottery recently (catalog number E361935). At first glance it looks like a simple, small black bowl. However, an historical tag included with the pottery indicates that this is the “Rarest Pottery in the world from Eskimo of Nelson Island, Alaska. Made of fish eggs, seal blood, burnt hair, graphite, pumice stone, ptarmigan feathers. $10.09 (?)”. This appears to be the back of the tag, which was actually manufactured by the ACME tag company in Minneapolis and associates this object in some way with the “Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, the Most Unique Shop in the World”, proprietor: J.E. Standley, Seattle, WA. While we still cannot take any of that information as fact of origin or of material make-up of the pot without more investigating, it does raise a lot of interesting questions and would point us in some interesting directions if we wanted to research Alaskan pottery more deeply.
Q: This is large, multi-year project, why is investing in this type of work important?
HB: This project has a number of stakeholders, who are invested for very different reasons. Digitizing collections is important for the institution because it allows the public to interface more readily with the museum’s collections, and to engage on another level besides just physically coming to the museum and seeing objects on exhibit. It also allows us to demonstrate the diversity and vastness of our ethnological holdings which can be a draw for funders and researchers. For researchers and academics, having our collections digitized allows them to take their projects to another level—our images are publication-grade and can be used on their own for investigations of materials, production techniques, culture and history, etc. They are also a way for researchers to investigate what we have, and to plan a visit to our collections to do some in-person research. Finally, and what I personally feel is most important, our images provide a link between our collections and the indigenous communities from which many of our circumpolar ethnology collections originate or were collected. Our images are referenced for repatriation visits, when individuals or groups want to learn more about traditional modes of production and life-ways, and any number of community-lead initiatives or collaborations such as the Inuvialuit Living History Project.
Q: How does the digitization process actually work?
EC: Put simply, the process involves moving objects from their storage location to our photo studio, taking photographs from a variety of angles and highlighting important details, then returning the objects to storage and adding the photos to the collections database. Of course, when you’re working with over 20,000 objects of vastly different sizes, shapes, weights, and materials, it’s not a simple process at all. The absolute most important aspect of a digitization project of this scale is ensuring that the objects are properly cared for throughout these steps. So we move through this collection one geographic/cultural group at a time. I’ll begin a new group by conducting a survey: physically going into the storage space and evaluating each object based on size and type of photo setup needed. Our storage facility is truly massive, and objects are often spread out across it. For this reason, we use a series of spreadsheets to track movement of objects and keep all the necessary information in one place. Working from this spreadsheet, I can then begin moving objects from their storage locations into the photo studio and doing the photography part. I sit with each object and note details that will be of interest to researchers. Areas that are broken or wearing thin, for example, can actually be very valuable, as they often give a view of the layers of an object and insight as to how it was made. I use my camera to document the object as well as I can, and then I prepare them to return to their storage location. For cumbersome objects, I often have to enlist the help of volunteers or interns in moving them. Once I’ve processed the photos, I share them with Haley, who handles the data management for the project. She adds metadata to the images and imports them into the collections management database program used by the staff here. These imports are automatically backed up to the collections search on the web site, where the public can view the images any time they like.
Q: What is the most interesting or unexpected thing you have learned about this collection?
EC: Often these collections tell us much more about the collectors than they do the source communities. I came to this project with a background in anthropology and collections management, but no particular knowledge of the Circumpolar region at all. While I have learned a great deal about arctic and subarctic cultural groups, their material culture, and regional flora and fauna, I’ve come to understand even more about the history of science in these regions, including the movement of major expeditions through these areas and the lens through which they viewed local people and created value systems for the objects being collected.
HB: In working with this collection I have come to a better understanding of circumpolar geography and cultural groups and how colonialism, economics, politics, climate change, and technological innovation have shaped those things. You can learn a great deal about a region or cultural group when looking at the objects produced and used there, and how they changed over time. We hope to give readers a small taste of that through our posts and featured objects!
Q: Any final thoughts?
HB: We are really hoping to create a dialogue by making the work we are doing more open and transparent. We will be featuring the voices of some of our stakeholders—including academic researchers, indigenous community members, curators, collections staff, and more. We are hoping that people become excited and intrigued by the images and information we post and reach out to us or the other featured authors about their thoughts or work. Doing this digitization is only part of achieving our goal—the bulk of it comes when our images get out into the world and people engage with them!
EC: While I really enjoy working closely with these objects every day, the entire point is for them to be viewed, enjoyed, and used by the diverse public we’re serving. I’m so glad we’re at a place in this project where we can begin to cultivate a relationship with our audience and learn more about what these images mean to them.
We’re super excited to be working with Haley and Emily to share our wonderful collection with you! To keep up to date on newly digitized objects, the importance of this collection to both indigenous group and researchers, and a behind the scenes look at what this type of project looks like follow along on our blog, Twitter, and Facebook pages.