DCSIMG

“Smithsonian Science How” Live Career Chat with Bill Fitzhugh

Bill career talkTeachers, introduce your students to a career in archaeology. Join us October 19 for a live online “Smithsonian Science How” text chat with Bill Fitzhugh about his job as an archaeologist studying culture and climate change in the Arctic. Learn more and register.

Date: October 19, 2017

Times: 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. EDT

Learn More and Register: http://qrius.si.edu/explore-science/chat/archaeologist-bill-fitzhugh  


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/.

Image 1
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.

Image 2
: 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?

Image 3
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

23 ASC_NL2016
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.


Arctic Ethnology Imaging Project

By Emily Cain and David Rosenthal.  Originally published in the ASC Newsletter, No. 23. 40-41

Emily and Brittany
Emily Cain (left) and Brittany Hance (right) in the Department of Anthropology's Imaging Lab at the Museum Support Center.

The summer of 2015 saw the beginning of the Department of Anthropology’s Collections Management Unit’s Arctic Ethnology Imaging Project. The goal of this project is to photograph and make available online the entire NMNH Arctic Ethnology collection of over 20.000 objects.

Funding for the first project year (2015/2016) came from the Smithsonian Collections Care and Preservation Fund (CCPF) created in 2006 as an institution-wide pool to accomplish a wide variety of collections-related projects. The CCPF has funded 181 projects since its inception, totaling over $19 million awarded. Jake Homiak, former Anthropology Collections and Archives Program Director, and David Rosenthal, Anthropology Collections Manager, worked on the first grant proposal in summer 2014 together with the support of Igor Krupnik, Arctic Ethnology Curator.

Receiving the funding has allowed us to hire Brittany Hance and Emily Cainto see this project through. Brittany is a professional photographer and former intern with NMNH Photo Services. Emily, with a Master’s Degree in Museum Studies from GWU (2015) has worked as a SIMA (Summer Institute in Museum Anthropology) intern and contractor. Brittany and Emily primarily work out of the Anthropology Collection Lab’s photo studio at the Museum Support Center (MSC) in Suitland, Maryland. It is equipped with an in-studio Mac Pro shooting computer, a Canon T6s camera with 24-70 EF lens, and Capture One 8.3 software, allowing for a streamlined process and high-quality product. Objects are tracked electronically, using a digital bar-code reader and color-coded system that records at exactly which step in the process each individual object is. Using these and other tools, they’ve modified the imaging workflow so that images are added to the online database almost as fast as they are taken while also minimizing human error.

Each object from the collection, ranging from Edward Nelson’s 1879 ti-sikh-puk dance mask from Western Alaska to Greenlandic souvenir tupilak figures of the 1960s, are carefully and thoroughly photographed, providing a highly detailed and readily accessible visual record to go along with existing catalog records.

Miniature walrus
Miniature walrus carving collected on St. Lawrence Island by Vaughn Rockney, 1943. E416900, Photograph by Brittany Hance

Challenges

The wide variety of materials within the Arctic collections presents certain logistical challenges; namely, the execution of an efficient system despite the breadth of shapes, sizes, and compositions of objects. In order to navigate this issue, the photo studio has been redesigned with fully modular and mobile shooting and staging areas, allowing for maximum flexibility to suit the needs of individual objects. Additionally, a series of specialized, supplemental photoshoots are planned for objects that fall outside of the capabilities of our main studio.

In collaboration with NMNH Photo Services, two weekend photo shoots have been completed to date in order to accommodate oversized objects such as large parkas and blankets. These objects’ size and, often, age require a much larger staging space and many careful hands. These photo shoots, conducted with the gantry system in the street at MSC, involve experienced volunteers to help facilitate the handling of very large objects, as well as the presence of two photographers for a combination of overall and detail shots with maximum efficiency. In order to manage extra-long objects such as spears and paddles, a new shooting process involving linear motion positioning is in the works for the coming summer.

Small wooden mask
Small wooden mask collected in western Alaska by Henry Collins in 1927. E340246, Photograph by Brittany Hance.

To date, we have photographed more than 2,800 objects and produced over 14,000 images. The majority of objects that belong to St. Lawrence Island Yupik and Nunivak Island Yup’ik/Čupik cultural groups have been photographed and inserted into the database, as well as the collections of Lucien M. Turner and Charles Francis Hall for Labrador and Arctic Canada/Greenland, respectively. The collections database is being updated with the outcomes of the project on a regular basis, with hundreds of new images being made available to both internal users and the general public each week.

We are currently waiting for the Smithsonian to announce the 2016 recipients of the CCPF awards and have high hopes to be funded for year 2 of this project. It will include the imaging of the Kotzebue Sound, Northwest Alaska, and of our smaller Siberia collections. Overall the project is expected to take four years to complete. In that time, Brittany and Emily plan to continue improving their process and to document it for future implementation across other in-house Anthropology digitization projects.


A Social Media Internship with the Arctic Studies Center

By: Ismelda R. Correa. Originally published in the ASC Newsletter, No. 22, pg. 77-78.

Isme
Isme with Henry the elephant in the rotunda of NMNH

I was in residence with the Arctic Studies Center as a social media intern as part of the University of Houston partnership with the Smithsonian for three-weeks. The idea of working on social media in an anthropology office was a new experience for me. While I am confident in my technical knowledge—my major is chemical engineering—I knew I was going to work on two subjects I had limited experience with: social media and the Arctic. Don’t misunderstand me. While I am active on social media as much as every other 20-year-old, I did lack a Twitter and Instagram account. Additionally, I did not know how a research center in the most visited natural history museum in the world used Facebook. Could they post memes?

With her cheerful and approachable personality, my mentor, Meghan Mulkerin, soothed my worries soon after meeting her. My assignment was to provide the Arctic Studies Center (ASC) feedback on their social media outreach, which ranged from their own website and blog, Magnetic North, to platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and to create some content of my own working with Meghan and Bill Fitzhugh. A few days after starting my internship, Meghan arranged for me to meet two other social media experts within the Smithsonian community; Maria Anderson, the Press Secretary for Latino Media and Adriel Luis, the Curator of Digital and Emerging Media at the Asian Pacific American Center. In our separate meetings, they discussed successful social media strategies and answered all of my questions. By the end of the meetings, I was better prepared to complete my assignment and amazed at the support the Smithsonian Institution offers to its interns. 

As I was learning about the do’s and don’ts of the various social media platforms, I worked on honing my tweeting skills. In an attempt to use the information I had learned on successfully engaging with our followers on Arctic subjects, I came up with my first tweet. As the day progressed, I constantly monitored the amount of retweets and favorites. Needless to say, I am extremely proud of it. As a note, the Unangax/Aleut people live in the Aleutian Islands located in western Alaska.

Tweetismecrop
Isme's first tweet!

One of the benefits of interning at the Smithsonian’s NMNH is the behind the scenes access interns and fellows have to the collections. While my internship was short-term, I got to see three different collections, the Burgess Shale, paleobiology (fossil marine mammals) and the birds collection. The tours were led by researchers within the departments that encouraged our questions.

As the end of my internship approaches, I appreciate social media is more than a form of entertainment. It is a powerful tool museums are using, and constantly improving, to engage with the American public; a public that has changed and is constantly changing the way they obtain information. Most of all, I have to praise the willingness of the Smithsonian Institution and the smaller research-divisions it is made up of (like the Arctic Studies Center) to embrace the  use of social media to reach out to the American public in order to uphold their mission of increasing and spreading knowledge.

If you are interested in learning more about internships at the Smithsonian, please visit the Office of Fellowships and Internships. Watch the video below for more on what Isme and her fellow interns from the University of Houston had to say about their experiences at the Smithsonian!