Contextualizing Museum Collections at the Smithsonian Institution: The Relevance of Collections-Based Research in the Twenty-First Century
“Old” museum collections are a valuable and sustainable resource for conducting archaeological investigation. In the past decade, a revitalization in collections-based research has occurred within the discipline of anthropology, more specifically within the subdiscipline of archaeology. This renewed interest stems from a variety of familiar and more recent trends in archaeology. The most substantial trends are the ongoing curation crisis, the lack of funding opportunities for large-scale excavation projects, evolving ethical standards, the return of anthropologists into museum settings, and academia finally allowing M.A. and Ph.D. theses to be based on existing collections. Additionally, archaeometric techniques have assisted in giving value to existing museum collections by creating original data sets for new interpretations. Collections-based research has many benefits compared to field research. The collections that are under the care of museums allow researchers to better contextualize field data from recent excavations, enable comparisons of broader sets of objects than can be obtained from excavations alone, and provide the opportunity to study rare objects that are encountered infrequently during field work. Research on collections generates object biographies that include provenance, manufacture, use, repairs, and detection of outright forgeries. Collections offer an opportunity for collaboration and engagement by community members and can lead to a repatriation of knowledge, if not a repatriation of the items themselves. This edited volume contributes a comprehensive approach to collections-based research using anthropological collections housed at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian and National Museum of Natural History, Department of Anthropology. Additionally, the volume will serve as a pedagogical manual for conducting collections-based research within current museum milieus.
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