Tag Archives: museums

The Dorothy Garrod Photographic Archive

"Heap of rolled flints in EB" - 1933

Dorothy Garrod (1892-1968) was the first prehistorian and the first woman to be elected to a professorship at Cambridge University. She excavated in Gibraltar, Palestine, Southern Kurdistan, Anatolia, and Bulgaria where she made amazing advances in archaeology, uncovering the skull fragments of a Neanderthal child and established the Natufian culture. As they tell it, the Pitt Rivers Museum received “an old-fashioned leather hat-box with the letters ‘D.G.’ in gold on the front.” Inside was an absolute treasure–Dorothy Garrod’s collection of negatives from her field work. The Pitt Rivers Museum has scanned them all and shared them at The Garrod Collection webpage.

Even if you aren’t a giant history of archaeology nerd, it deserves a look. The photographs are amazing–well-shot and downright delightful, showing a full range of the archaeological experience in the 1920s-1930s. There’s illustrations too!

Dean Harriet M. Alleyn, Dorothy Garrod, Elinor Ewbank, Mary Kitson Clark, Dr. Martha Hackett, (left to right) I can't lie, I wish I was standing in that line of amazing women.

(On envelope) Photos. KH. Qumran(?). Attetatious de Benediction. St. Sepaccre. 1960 (Back)

(On envelope) Photos. KH. Qumran(?). Attetatious de Benediction. St. Sepaccre. 1960 (Back)

Thanks to the Pitt Rivers museum for making this archive available to researchers online!

Old Bones Paper Published

In September 2009, I gave a presentation at the UMAC conference when it was at Berkeley of a paper I wrote with three other authors. Sadly, the original paper was gutted and published in a much modified form. It was a good but painful lesson in academic politics, sharing, and open access. Most of the advances in digital outreach cited in the paper have been modified and a lot of the content had to be taken down.

If you are looking for peer-reviewed academic papers that cite blogs and photo-sharing sites like Flickr, and Youtube for outreach in archaeology and disseminating museum collections, there you go. One of the most interesting parts of the paper, the ethics statement for the digital dissemination of human remains was cut, but it remains on the Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project blog here. My query to the IVSA about ethics and visuality in regard to this project was quoted in the Visual Studies article about their new ethics statement, so it was a sort of end-around publication.

Anyway, I had big plans for the project, but ended up pretty much walking away from it. Not everyone thinks that museum collections that the public pay for should be shared with that public. Mind-boggling, but true. The rest of the team is still doing good work with the collection of Dilmun artifacts and human remains in the museum.

So, here’s the paper:

Old Bones, Digital Narratives: Re-investigating the Cornwall Collection in the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum.

It should go without saying as this is a single-author archaeology blog, but:

These views are my own and are probably not shared by my co-authors and should not reflect on them in any way.

Wikileaks, Radical Transparency, and Archaeology

As the news cycled through the latest Wikileaks surprise–250,000 US Embassy Diplomatic Cables–my students were giving their final presentations in class. Ruth and I (with much technical assistance from Michael Ashley) taught a class on Archaeology and New Media this semester, culminating in a fairly open-ended final group project about some aspect of archaeology in the Bay Area.

The projects tended to be a mix of media that the students had produced themselves such as videos and photographs, along with historical materials that they gleaned from archives. Mixing their own microhistories with the historical archive results in more interesting, innovative, and intellectually robust interpretations of the past and emphasizes participatory culture and history-making.

Sadly, their eagerness to interact with these past materials is often met with serious resistance from the local archives. While the individual archivists may be sympathetic, the archive often has stipulations that the materials cannot be shared. At all. This mystifies and frustrates the students, and this makes me both sympathetic (I have been through this constantly during my tenure at UC Berkeley) and grimly determined.

I truly believe that institutions that house collections need to make these collections available to the public that pays for them. Period. The students can sense this and it leads to a process of negotiation in the classroom. The students have taken photos that they aren’t sure they can use. They have gathered quotes from interviews that the archive refuses to publish. I try to make the students fully understand copyright law, their place in the educational system and their rights, and the consequences of violating copyright. But I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth–I tell them to share, and, as much as they are able, to free information from obsolete or tyrannical bureaucracy. They are already learning to negotiate and operate within radical transparency. Facebook, Google and the government are omnipresent–collecting information at every turn–and the students are learning from this example and turning it back onto the companies that control content, rejecting the right to keep any information under lock and key.

Don’t know what I’m talking about? The Getty museum is talking about destroying their collection of 100,000 study slides. Why? Because when they decided to digitize them several years ago, they discovered that the original vendors who sold them the slides made the Getty promise to never scan them. They don’t have slide projectors anymore and the last time a slide was checked out was a year ago. The only thing they can do is trash them. They will probably do it.

These collections are dying, strangled by ridiculous restrictions, outdated copyright law, and protectionist garbage. If my students commandeer and share archival material is it stealing media or is it liberating information? Many educators are horrified that students no longer read or reference books or journal articles that are not available online. I’m wondering if we shouldn’t actually encourage this behavior and boycott offline research. If something is not available, make it available. If you do not make your research widely available, then perhaps it is rightfully ignored.

Digitize and share your archive, by hook or crook. You might just be saving its life.

See also: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/nov/29/the-revolution-will-be-digitised

Old Bones, Digital Narratives: Re-investigating the Cornwall Collection in the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum

I just realized that while I had posted about this over at the Dilmun (was Bahrain) Bioarchaeology project blog, I hadn’t linked it to my main blog. I wrote this for the UMAC (University Museums and Collections) conference that is being held here at UC Berkeley next week.  The paper itself has four authors, but I took the lead on it. Here’s the abstract:

A joint team of archaeologists from the University of California, Berkeley and Sonoma State University are examining a collection of artifacts and skeletal material excavated in Bahrain and Eastern Saudi Arabia in the 1940s and curated in the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum.  This collection has hereto remained un-investigated since the time of Cornwall’s Harvard dissertation.  Motivated by modern innovations in the examination of skeletal materials and a greater awareness of broader Near Eastern history, we are considering this collection from a contemporary bioarchaeological perspective as well as in terms of the personal history of Peter B. Cornwall and his team. During this process we have attempted to raise public interest in the project, while remaining sensitive to the issues regarding the depiction and documentation of the remains of past peoples.  In making our research methodology more transparent through this digital documentation and presentation, we hope to distribute awareness of the Cornwall collection across a number of online platforms in a non-traditional format.  In this paper we critically examine the tensions between access to museum collections and respectful digital remediation of assemblages involving human remains.

Pretty standard stuff, right? Well, I’ve had to address a few more issues that have come up since. The Phoebe A. Hearst museum was last in the news in late 2008 when the unit handling some of the Native American human remains was disbanded. There is continuing protest and interest in related matters being blogged about here. At the time, many of the graduate students did not really know what was going on (with a few exceptions) and we were told a few different stories.

Fast-forward to a couple of weeks ago, when the San Francisco Chronicle ran a front-page story on Japanese war dead remains that were in the museum, in apparent contradiction to the Geneva conventions. And, indeed, article 17 of the Geneva Convention of 1949 states that the war dead must be honorably interred and their graves must be respected.

I did not expect that I’d be citing international humanitarian law when I wrote up my little abstract last year, and I’m still trying to sort out exactly how to contextualize our research on 4,000 year old human remains from Dilmun tumuli in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia within this dialogue on museum ethics.  The good people over at the Museum Anthropology blog have a great series of posts on the topic, (here, here, and here) and end with a very valid question: Why do people think so differently about Native American human remains?

I am certainly not the best equipped person to answer the question, but I feel like it’s an issue that anyone working in North America has to contend with. While I don’t work in the States for my dissertation, two summers ago I took some contract work with a local company that is part owned by a member of one of the local tribes and excavated prehistoric Native American remains in a rescue context. These remains were later buried. I don’t really have a problem with what I did, other than some of the methodology employed–I would have liked to excavate the site more generally and more fully, so we could understand the context of the burials a bit better. Some of my colleagues state that they’d never excavate human remains, in North America or anywhere else in the world.

So, like so many other things, it’s complicated. We’ve drafted an ethics statement for our research on the collection and it has made us ask some hard questions about the recovery of these bones and stakeholders who may be interested in our research. I’ll post the entire paper later if possible–it’s going to be published in the proceedings and some publishers are still hesitant to have pre-prints available on the web.

Fred Wilson – Remixing Museums

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Cabinetmaking 1820-1960, selections from the Maryland Historical Society

(from my upcoming talk)

Fred Wilson, a name probably familiar to most people who work in museums, is a contemporary artist who made headlines in 1992 for his exhibit, “Mining the Museum.” Wilson makes site-specific installations with museum collections, often juxtaposing the museum’s holdings in a way that creates a new public persona for the museum and exposes the deliberations and decisions about exhibits (Wilson 1994). In “Mining the Museum”, Wilson selected several of the fine examples of plantation furniture curated at the Baltimore museum, then arranged these chairs around a slave whipping post that was used until the 1950s, and stashed in the museum’s basement in 1963. He has had several exhibitions since, even rearranging the collections at the Phoebe Hearst museum at the University of California, Berkeley, my “home” museum. I chose Fred Wilson’s work as an example of what can broadly termed as a remix, a refashioning of more traditional (albeit, in themselves derivative) forms. Wilson’s explicitly political work demands that we consider ethnographic and archaeological exhibits closely, and asks if we could benefit from different perspectives. I wonder what an entire recombinant museum would look like, and if we could achieve this remix by digital means.

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Friendly Natives, 1991 (the skeletons are plastic)

(images from Maurice Berger’s Fred Wilson: Objects and Installations 1979-2000)

The Mejlby Stone

This museum display, a rune stone lit and animated with the story it contains, is an amazing digital production produced by a team from Denmark.  In the presentation that I’m getting together, I argue for more of this kind of work to be done by archaeologists, but it’s pretty amazing when a well-funded team of artists and technicians get together to produce a piece of digital art that is informed by history.  The digital chisel working its way across the stone was so much fun, and having the text spill out across the floor to make an interactive (though limited) interface was nothing short of inspired. I have to admit, part of me wishes that I could contribute my own little shadow puppets to the show.

Anyway, I thought I’d re-post, as it seems to have been missed by most of the major archaeology blogs and is related to a few points I’ve raised before.