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Collection Highlight E48851: Shuttlecock

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This item from our collections perhaps seems unfamiliar at first, but if you take a closer look you might recognize a familiar object.  It’s a shuttlecock! Shuttlecocks, also referred to as “birdies”, are what get batted back and forth during a game of badminton. This shuttlecock has a head made of wound fibers, which serves as a weight, and a tail of feathers. The feathers, traditionally taken from only one wing of a bird, help keep the shuttlecock aerodynamic. These days we tend to use commercially manufactured plastic and rubber shuttlecocks. This object was donated by Edward Nelson, accessioned on Feb 9th, 1882, and collected near the Lower Yukon River.  

Explore more objects and images on our online database!


Collection Highlight E153696: Painted Spoon

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This is one of several beautifully painted wooden spoons in our collections from Alaska. This particular spoon was collected by J.H. turner and donated to the museum on March 9th, 1894 by the Bureau of American Ethnology. Many Circumpolar objects with varying shapes and uses have decorations in this style!

Explore more objects and images on our online database!


Collection Highlight E7733: Snow-goggles

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Snow-goggles, most often made of carved wood, are a common object across a number of groups represented in the circumpolar ethnology collections. Snow-goggles are meant to be positioned on the face, over the eyes, and secured to the wearer’s head with a strap of skin or hide. The small opening in the goggles allows the wearer to see out, while protecting them from snow blindness—caused by the sun reflecting off the snow and bouncing harmful UV rays directly into one’s eyes causing temporary blindness. These particular goggles, collected by Roderick R. MacFarlane and accessioned into the collections in 1869, are different—they are made out of a wolverine’s head! If you look closely perhaps you can find the beading and embellishment added to them. While we can’t say for sure how, or if, these goggles may have been used differently than the more common wood goggles, it is safe to say they look pretty cool!

Explore more objects and images on our online database!


Collection Highlight E352229: Bag- Wood and Dressed Skin

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This small bag, made of wood or reeds and dressed animal skin, was donated to the museum in 1931! Though the catalog card does not identify a collector, we know it was donated by The Museum of the Academy of Sciences, Leningrad, Russia. Collected near the Aldan and Lena Rivers area in Southeastern Siberia, Russia, the bag is associated with the Yakut (or Sakha) culture. Bags of this type, typically made from ox hide, were used to transport fermented mare’s milk (koumiss)! ‘This bag couldn’t hold much koumiss!’ you may be saying. In fact, this particular bag is most likely a model or a child’s version of the typical full sized bag!

Explore more objects and images on our online database!


Collection Highlight E394452: Cribbage Board

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This cribbage board, made from a single walrus tusk, is beautifully decorated with scrimshaw—carving on whale bone or ivory which is colored with pigment! Cribbage, a card game invented in the 1600s, is historically a British invention and pastime, though it found its way to American shores on board ships throughout the later 19th and early 20th centuries alongside explorers and colonialists. Embellished boards such as this one, which are used to keep score, were likely made by Alaskan natives for sale to non-natives, as a market for tourist goods blossomed with the arrival of Europeans the late 1800s.

Although the history of the game is long, and scrimshaw was originally done on whaling ships beginning in the mid 1700’s, our cribbage board was collected from St. Lawrence Island by Mr. Edward D. Jones and accessioned into the museum in 1957. If you take a closer look at the detail images taken by our photographer, you can see the holes for the score keeping pegs (“spilikins”) evenly placed among the intricate scrimshaw work.

Explore more objects and images on our online database!


Collection Highlight E332406: Seal Skin Bag Made with Fish Heads

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From a distance, this object looks like a relatively unremarkable, woven, lightly decorated bag. However, upon closer inspection you might notice that the bag is actually made of both sealskin and fish heads that have been stitched together (look for their eyes). Talk about unexpected materials!  This is just one example of so many in our collections of how circumpolar groups use the materials in innovative and effective ways that may be surprising to us non-circumpolar folks. For instance, conjoined fish heads would make a good water-resistant bag. Just like this delicately embroidered Work-Bag made of Sea Lion intestine. This bag was donated to the museum in 1926 by the National Museum of Denmark. It originates from the Inuit or Tunumiit people in Ammassalik County, Greenland.

Explore more objects and images on our online database!


Collection Highlight E43565: Extremely Tiny Walrus Belt Ornament

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Carving this diminutive ivory walrus, used as a belt ornament, must have been very difficult—check out some of the amazing details former project photographer, Brittany Hance, was able to capture.

This belt ornament, shaped like a walrus, is so tiny! This object is one of many collected by Edward W. Nelson and accessioned in 1880. Nelson’s objects form one of the founding circumpolar collections—so stay tuned for more information about Nelson and other impactful collectors, and how their efforts shaped the study of Arctic cultures and impacted the lives of people in that region.

Explore more objects and images on our online database!


Collection Highlight E424175: Samples, Weaving Process

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What is this particular weaving going to be when it’s finished? A coiled basket, perhaps like this one (E424170)! 

While many of the objects in the arctic ethnology collections were made a century, or more, ago there are a number of objects made and collected much more recently that have a great deal of contextual information. Here’s one example: five textile samples that illustrate different steps in the weaving process! These samples were created by Yup’ik weaver Emily Talavera, 36, of Mekoryuk, Nunavak Island, Alaska and were collected by and donated to the museum in 1984 by Ms. Eleanor Klingel. Works-in-progress like this help not only museum staff, but members of indigenous groups as well, investigate how objects have traditionally been made by artists and crafts-people through time.

Explore more objects and images on our online database!


Welcome to the Circumpolar Ethnology Imaging Project

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: http://collections.nmnh.si.edu/search/anth/.

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Emily Cain photographs an embroidered Innu bag (E153521) in the Anthropology Processing Lab’s photo studio at MSC. The exterior of the bag is made of loon feathers, and was collected in Labrador in the late 19th century.

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.

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: Haley Bryant works with tupilak figures (E432429) in Pod 1 at MSC. Tupilaks like the ones in NMNH’s collection were made in Greenland in the 1960s for the tourist market, but are inspired by earlier shamanic objects.

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?

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This knife handle (E37960) was collected by Edward Nelson in the Yukon-Kuskokwim River Delta in southwestern Alaska. It has since lost its blade, but is carved in the image of a polar bear with a walrus in its mouth.

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.


Sharing Knowledge Alaska: Microsite Update

By Dawn Biddison

The Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center’s Sharing

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Archival photo from Material Traditions: Sewing Gut. Kwigillingok, 1931, Courtesy of the Anchorage Museum.

Knowledge Alaska website offers educational and instructional videos -- some with teacher’s guides and lessons -- from its Anchorage Museum exhibition programs. With assistance from NMNH website administrator James Kochert, the site has been updated by Dawn Biddison to include Material Traditions: Sewing Gut– a set of eleven educational videos from an artists' residency at the Anchorage Museum and community workshop at the Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center in Bethel (see article in this issue). The videos feature teaching artists Mary Tunuchuk(Yup'ik) and Elaine Kingeekuk(St. Lawrence Island Yupik), and contributing artist Sonya Kelliher-Combs(Iñupiaq/Athabascan). The videos include interviews, how to process seal intestine, preparing thread and grass, sewing gut strips and more. Go to http://www.mnh.si.edu/arctic/html/sharing-knowledge-alaska/Index.html or search for “ASC Sharing Knowledge Alaska” with Google Chrome (for best viewing) to find the link. A limited number of DVD copies are available by request, as well as full resolution HD files.