According to the late William Moss, former director of the Smithsonian Institution (SI) Archives, the Smithsonian’s National Anthropological Archives (NAA) is “document for document the richest archival research resource in the Institution,” and that in comparison to other SI archival repositories the NAA “probably supports more significant research than any of the others” (NAA correspondence files). These accolades stand in contrast to the lack of awareness among most anthropologists about what the National Anthropological Archives is, what it collects, and why it matters. In conjunction with the ASA we have organized several events at the AAA meetings in DC to shine some light on the NAA, beginning with this guest column.
About the NAA
The NAA is an archival repository that sits organizationally within the Department of Anthropology (DoA) of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). Its mission is to collect, preserve, and make accessible historical and contemporary materials relating to the history of all four fields of anthropology and the cultures of the world.
The NAA was formed in the early 1960s when the separate archives of the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE), and those of the DoA were combined. The merged archives were formally named the National Anthropology Archives in 1968, the same year that the American Anthropological Association adopted a resolution addressing the need to preserve the archives of anthropologists. Introduced by George Stocking, the resolution also stated that the NAA would serve as the default repository for anthropological materials not committed to other institutions. The original core of the NAA’s collections stems from the major surveys of the American West and the investigations of the BAE. Formed in 1879, the BAE was the brainchild of John Wesley Powell, after observing the extent to which traditional languages and cultural practices of indigenous Americans were diminishing in the wake of Western expansion.
Funded by congress, the BAE became a department within the Smithsonian that sought to document these rapidly changing cultures by sending linguists, ethnologists, and archaeologists to carry out what we now call salvage anthropology.
The merging of the BAE and the DoA archives expanded the NAA’s collecting focus to the global, thus enhancing its ability to build a comprehensive collection, which continues to grow. Recent acquisitions include the papers of Marvin Harris, Melford Spiro, and Robert Rankin. We also collect the papers of lesser-known anthropologists, as a significant amount of important research data remains unpublished. The NAA is also the official repository for the records of over 30 anthropological organizations, including the American Anthropological Association and the Society of American Archaeology. The DoA’s material culture and specimen collections have related field notes, photographs, and other material in the NAA that document provenance and the research of their collectors.
The NAA serves hundreds of on-site and remote researchers per year, and is by far one of the busiest archives in the Smithsonian. Patrons include members of Native communities, academic researchers from many disciplines, students, and artists, who put the NAA’s collections to a wide range of uses. Last year alone, the NAA received permission requests to use its material in over 180 books, articles, exhibits, dissertations, films, and curricula. Additionally, the NAA’s collections are vital to programs such as the Summer Institute in Museum Anthropology, the National Breath of Life Archival Institute for Indigenous Languages, Recovering Voices, and the NMNH Repatriation Office. The Archives are also a valuable resource for colleagues wishing to examine prior work on their areas of research.
Preserving the Anthropological Record
In 1993, Sydel Silverman and other concerned individuals founded the Council on the Preservation of Anthropological Records (CoPAR), whose focus is to raise awareness among the anthropological community on the importance of preserving the anthropological record. In CoPAR’s Preserving the Anthropological Record, Silverman writes, “all anthropologists have a responsibility to the future of the discipline to ensure that as much of the [archival] record as possible is preserved, appropriately archived, and eventually made available to future generations.” CoPAR’s message is simple: you—yes, you, whether famous or not—can and must be a part of this effort.
Untold collections are lost because heirs mistake valuable records for junk piles, and toss them away. It is also common to find that bodies of work are inappropriately dispersed among multiple locations. When my father Skip Rappaport died in 1997, no prior arrangement had been made for his archives and not being an archivist at the time, I had no advice to share with my mother when three separate archival repositories solicited her. In the end, each got a share: Dad’s field notes and photographs went to the Tuzin Archive at UC San Diego, his faculty papers to the Bentley Historical Library at Michigan; and his AAA presidential files to the NAA. Though it was fortunately a clean division, archivists know from years of experience that collections generally better serve researchers when they are kept in one place.
“For anthropology, the unpublished records of the past are of more than historical interest; they are more than resources for study of the history of the discipline,” writes Silverman. “They constitute the basic data of all research—data that are unique and unrecoverable.” The value of the archival record today cannot be understated—and its uses are incalculable. Your colleagues and I urge you to think about placing your materials in an archives once you no longer have need of them, before or after retirement. In addition, if you have not already deposited your materials, inform your heirs of your intentions. Doing so will prevent tragic losses of information that will undoubtedly be sought in the coming years by your academic descendants. The entire academic community benefits from the collections of the National Anthropological Archives, but these archives depend on your contributions to them.
Further discussion of anthropological archives and the NAA will take place at the 2017 AAA meetings on Saturday morning in sessions 5-0035 and 5-0375, “Anthropological Legacies: the Forgotten, the Missing, and the ‘Re-discovered.’” To familiarize colleagues with the resources of the NAA, we have also organized a field trip to the NAA in conjunction with the ASA for the afternoon of Thursday November 30th, 2017 (session 3-0980). Don’t forget to register for the field trip if you would like to attend! And please, stop by the NAA’s booth in the Exhibit hall!
Hinsley, Curtis M., Jr. 1981. Savages and Scientists: The Smithsonian Institution and the Development of American Anthropology 1846-1910. Washington, D.C: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Judd, Neil M. 1967. The Bureau of the American Ethnology: A Partial History. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Sanjek, Roger. 1990. Fieldnotes: The Makings of Anthropology. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Silverman, Sydel, and Nancy J. Parezo, Eds. 1995. Preserving the Anthropological Record. Second Edition. New York: Wenner‐Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, Inc.
Gina Rappaport is the Photo Archivist and Head Archivist at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Anthropological Archives. Although she is not an anthropologist, she was nurtured by the anthropological community since infancy—starting with Mervyn Meggitt dosing her bottle with rum one night when she was on a crying jag.
Cite as: Rappaport, Gina. 2017. “The National Anthropological Archives . . . and You.” Anthropology News website, October 18, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.648