Skip to main content

Student turns detective to solve mystery of Smithsonian's missing pieces

October 14, 2010

Arizona State University anthropology graduate student Catherine Nichols spent her summer on the hunt in the archives of the Smithsonian Institution. Her investigative work is just beginning. Consider her an anthropology detective, attempting to track down the whereabouts of hundreds of pieces from the institution’s earliest holdings.

That daunting task was laid out for her by Nancy Parezo, an American Indian Studies professor at the University of Arizona, and one of two faculty overseeing the Smithsonian’s Summer Institute in Museum Anthropology.

Nichols was one of 12 graduate students from across the country chosen to participate in this National Science Foundation-funded program focused on providing training in material culture.

A mystery unfolds

Nichols arrived at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History prepared to study collections from the American Southwest and how they represent what Americans think about that region.

Then, Parezo mentioned to her that a sizeable percentage of the objects in the Bureau of Ethnology’s first collection are no longer at the museum. Nichols was immediately intrigued by where the missing objects went.

She began research that she likened to a treasure hunt. In the museum’s vast Research and Collections facility in Maryland, she familiarized herself with one of the ethnographic collections in question: artifacts retrieved from New Mexico by anthropologists Frank Cushing and James Stevenson in the 1880s. Most of the pieces are Pueblo pottery, namely Zuni.

Nichols was puzzled to discover that several of the pieces, which she deemed “amazing and beautiful,” were stamped on the outside with blue ink, indicating that at the time of collection, they were considered nothing more than scientific specimens – specimens that were loaned and traded nationally and internationally, she learned.

It was a Herculean effort to even begin tracking down the paperwork showing where the missing artifacts had gone.

“Catalogs and databases are set up in such a way that you think about what’s there, not what’s missing,” explained Nichols, who relied on old-fashioned investigative legwork.

Nichols nearly took up residence in the National Anthropological Archives, where she dug through myriad documents and dove into stacks of boxes to find out how the objects had been tracked.

At first, the items were logged-in using catalog ledger books and, after a time, the log entries were abandoned in favor of index cards. Whenever an object was transferred, a card was made, and those cards even included the contents of letters outlining where the pieces were to go.

What Nichols found was a pattern of heavy transfer from around the turn of the 20th century through the 1920s.

For example, in 1918, the U.S. National Museum exchanged 146 archaeological and ethnological specimens, including some of the pottery Stevenson and Cushing collected from Zuni, for a collection of antiquities from Egypt, Babylonia, Greece, Rome, France and England, including stone implements, pottery, bronze tools, cuneiform clay tablets and textiles from the Royal Ontario Museum.

Nichols noted, “I have all the letters. This is one of many exchanges with museums all over the world.”

In other cases, she determined that Southwestern artifacts were given as gifts to libraries, local museums, even high schools. Often, letters from congressional representatives accompanied requests.

Why did the transfers end around 1930? Nichols thinks it had something to do with the evolving view of the artifacts as unique individual pieces of fine art rather than mere scientific specimens.

This theory fits well with her main area of interest. Nichols is fascinated by what objects can tell us about culture from the perspective of collectors and curators.

An unforgettable opportunity

The four-week program was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Nichols, who stayed on the George Washington University campus in Washington, D.C. It was her first trip to the nation’s capital.

“I loved it. It has awesome energy and so many cultural things to do that it’s overwhelming,” she enthused.

As for the program highlights, she enjoyed working in the archives; meeting other students from around the nation who share here interest in object-based research; and finding supportive, knowledgeable mentors in Parezo and Gwyn Isaac, the curator of North American ethnology at the museum’s Department of Anthropology and former director of the ASU Museum of Anthropology.

“My other favorite thing was eating at the Museum of the American Indian. They have a cafeteria divided by regional fare, featuring amazing native foods,” she added.

Wrapping it up

Next, Nichols plans to write her field statements and go through the loads of data she collected during the summer. Her goal is to contact the places where the ethnographic materials were gifted or traded and find out if those objects are still there, and if so, whether or not the holders realize what they have.

Nichols is a sociocultural anthropology doctoral student in Arizona State University’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change. She is also the assistant curator for the ASU Museum of Anthropology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.