Smithsonian Perspectives

In the ever-expanding field of anthropology, the Smithsonian still excels in research and exhibition

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The American Anthropological Association held its annual meeting in San Francisco in November, bringing together a large number of anthropologists from universities, colleges and other organizations. A Presidential Symposium featured presentations primarily by members of the Department of Anthropology of the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). Titled "The 150th Year of Smithsonian Anthropology," the session celebrated the importance of the Smithsonian in the founding of anthropological studies. I was privileged to chair the session.

The meetings underscored for me how rapidly the focus of interest in fields like anthropology broadens and how venerable institutions like the Smithsonian seek to accommodate such change. Anthropology is an embracive social science most broadly defined as the study of the origin of humans and of their physical, social and cultural development. Smithsonian anthropology started as the study of Native American cultures, languages and history. In 1846, the Regents asked that collections be procured for the Institution "illustrating the natural history of the country, and more especially the physical history, manners and customs of the various tribes of aborigines of the North American continent." Enormous collections followed.

In 1879, with the establishment of the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE) as an independent division of the Smithsonian, American anthropology was institutionalized for the first time. Charged with carrying out research on American Indian cultures, including ethnology, archaeology and linguistics, the bureau operated as a separate entity until it was merged with a then-mature and research-oriented Department of Anthropology at the NMNH in 1965. In its 86 years, the BAE published numerous bulletins and reports, premier publications in anthropology. Meanwhile, the NMNH's Department of Anthropology focused on adding to and caring for the enormous collections of cultural, physical and biological objects, and organizing exhibitions. Most of these had to do with the Americas. Starting in the 1950s, however, anthropological research and curatorship was extended to the Pacific, Asia and Africa.

The range of anthropological research and exhibitions at the NMNH was illustrated at the meeting by various presentations including, on the research side, talks on human skeletal biology, the origins of agriculture in the Ameri-cas, the significance of objects to anthro-pological research at the Smithsonian, and archaeological studies of the first Americans. The Institution's involvement in exhibitions was reflected in presen-tations about the Smithsonian's past and present displays of Eskimo and African cultures, as well as its Festival of American Folklife as a museum-like exposition of contemporary cultures.


All social sciences overlap. Anthropology, however, seems broader than the rest, for its practitioners use the tools of the natural sciences (for instance, paleontology, biology and geology), the humanities (literature, linguistics and history), as well as other social sciences, including law. Moreover, the topics and modes of inquiry change. Looking through the program of the November meeting, I was struck by the number of sessions devoted to contemporary subjects and new kinds of inquiries. This is illustrated by the groupings within the American Anthropological Association, which include, for instance, ones concerned with psychological, urban, visual, environmental, feminist and nutritional anthropology. A sampling of sessions covered issues concerning elementary education; culture, politics and identity in contemporary Africa; perspectives on deviance and drug use; gender, sexuality and kinship in the new Western Europe; and anthropological approaches to nutrition in contemporary populations in the United States.

How can the Smithsonian cope with a field that is expanding in such dramatic ways? In 1994, our primary academic advisory committee, the Smithsonian Institution Council, presented a complex report that addressed a number of questions including those related to the expanding scope of anthropology.

The insights that appear most helpful in guiding future actions were: (1) the need to make choices in an era of constrained resources; (2) the strength of our activities in natural-science-based programs in anthropology, such as skeletal biology, archaeobiology and paleo-Indian archaeology, and their relationship to other science departments of the NMNH; (3) the richness of anthropological collections and archives within the NMNH and elsewhere in the Institution, and their potential for the study of ethnology; (4) the need to nourish relationships and communication among anthropologists working in a host of Smithsonian units, such as the National Museum of the American Indian, American History, Natural History and African Art, as well as the Center for Folklife Programs and Cultural Studies, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the Anacostia Museum's Center for African-American History and Culture; and (5) the usefulness of flexible and small exhibitions that address contemporary issues and explore similarities and differences between peoples.

The opportunities are considerable for shaping how the Smithsonian continues to be a major participant in anthropological research and exhibition. The new Provost has the subject under advisement and, as an initial step, is bringing together participants from various units who share common interests.

By I. Michael Heyman

About I. Michael Heyman
I. Michael Heyman

I. Michael Heyman served as the secretary of the Smithonian Institution from 1994 to 1999.

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