National Anthropological Archives at the Smithsonian Institution

The National Anthropological Archives (NAA) is a part of the Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museum research organization. (1) Specifically, the NAA is a part of the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) “dedicated to inspiring curiosity, discovery, and learning about the natural world.” (2) The NAA is the premier U.S. archival collection that focuses on preserving research and materials related to the study of anthropology including “ethnographic, archaeological, and linguistic fieldnotes, physical anthropological data, photographs, sound recordings and other media created by American anthropologists.” (3) As a part of the larger NMNH, the archives “collect and preserve historical and contemporary anthropological materials that document the world’s cultures and the history of anthropology.” (4)

Highlight: Edward S. Curtis Photography Collection:

Edward Curtis

The archives origin lies in the efforts of John Wesley Powell, one of America’s earliest anthropologists. In 1879, Powell began to consolidate the disperse notes and reports collected by American geological surveys funded by the U.S. Government. Powell brought the archival collections to the Smithsonian and with an Act of Congress founded the Bureau of American Ethnology “to organize anthropological research in America.” (5) The NAA has collected continuously since that era, and the Smithsonian BAE Bulletin series is still used by anthropologists today. (6) Among his many other accomplishments, Powell was also a member of the team of European Americans first to explore the Grand Canyon and Colorado River. (7) In 1967 the BAE merged with the Smithsonian Department of Anthropology (founded in 1897) and the NAA has been managed under the department since that time. (8)

Highlight: George L. Waite “Desert Sheiks” Lantern Slides:

The collections include the fieldnotes, photographs, and other collected data from many anthropological expeditions, both those sponsored by the Smithsonian as well as by numerous other organizations and universities. The collection has 8,250 linear feet of fieldnotes and notebooks. (9) In addition to paper records, the collection includes “635,000 ethnological and archaeological photographs, 20,000 works of native art, 11,400 sound recordings, and more than 8 million feet of original film and video materials.” The oldest collections date to the 1840s, and include the work of Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry on documenting the indigenous people of North America. Other records include those from the BAE, the U.S. National Museum’s Divisions of Ethnology and Physical Anthropology, the Smithsonian’s Department of Anthropology, the American Anthropological Association, the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, the American Ethnological Society, and the Society for American Archaeology. (10) The collection is described in numerous (about 800) guides and archival finding aids for each archival sub-collection, presented for the public on the NAA website (11a / 11b). The archives also support an online searchable catalog named SIRIS (The Smithsonian Institution Research Information System) that lists paper materials and other physical objects in the archives, and also serves as the search interface for their digitized materials such as photographs. (12a / 12b) The predominant users of the physical collections are anthropologists and other scholars, but the archives are open to the public. (13) To visit the NAA one must schedule an appointment and get a pass to enter. (14) Copies of some materials can be ordered. (15)

Highlight: Kiowa Art:

The collections mission and policy for the NAA is wrapped up within the larger National Museum of Natural History Collections Management Policy. The NMNH is “dedicated to the study of the natural world, including humans and the cultures they have created and maintain. As part of the larger Smithsonian mission, the NMNH is committed to the increase of knowledge and to disseminating that knowledge to the public” and “and allow the museum to make unique contributions to answering significant scientific questions and responding to national mandates, priorities, and concerns.” Further, “the NMNH is committed to long-term stewardship of the collections and to supporting their use by scientists and the general public.” (16) The NAA documents the development of the discipline of Anthropology. (17) The NAA specifically is “interested in everything an anthropologist creates, plus items that illuminate his or her public career and private life. We also collect materials that facilitate anthropological research that have been created by other professionals (such as linguists and ethnohistorians). Our collections include fieldnotes, diaries, photographs, sound recordings, film, video, teaching materials, lecture notes, grant applications, manuscript reviews, editorial business, correspondence (both personal and professional), diaries, ephemeral materials, and electronic files.” Much of the collection appears to come from donations from academic anthropologists, or the anthropologists with the Smithsonian. The NAA does not collect library materials (there is a separate Smithsonian anthropological collection). (18)

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