I have loved museums for as long as I can remember. As a kid, my mom took me to all kinds of museums: art, history, military, you name it. My favorite museum, though, was the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. Even though I didn’t move to Oklahoma until last year, my mom is from Moore. Every Christmas and summer vacation we would make sure to stop by the dinosaur museum in Norman. My family is also Native American, so that combined with my love of museums has fueled my passion for wanting to work on repatriation efforts and study archaeology.
I’m a senior at the University of Oklahoma, majoring in Anthropology and minoring in Native American Studies. In the Fall 2017, I am extremely lucky to be an intern in the archaeology collections at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History (SNOMNH). I’m even able to receive school credit as part of my degree. If you’re an OU student, you can learn more about student internships here. Interning at the museum has been an amazing opportunity for me to learn about preservation, archaeology, and working with tribes, as well as getting an insight into the ethical and legal issues that are going on in the museum community right now. A lot of the collections that I have had the opportunity to work with involve NAGPRA.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, was enacted in 1990 as a response to the millions of indigenous remains and associated funerary objects that are held in museum collections across the United States. Many of these artifacts were obtained by illegal means, and NAGPRA creates a legal channel for ancestral remains and burial goods to be rightfully repatriated back to their tribes.
The SNOMNH has protocols in place to ensure we are as careful, meticulous, and respectful as possible. As an intern, I got the chance to help create some of these protocols. We protect the privacy and sanctity of the tribes and tribal artifacts we work with, and ensure that we keep a careful record of the status and location of every artifact so each object has its cultural and/or preservation needs met. Part of this process includes faunal and human remains. It is important for every fragment in the collection to be analyzed to ensure all human remains are identified and separated from the faunal material. To expedite this process, I created a station where staff and volunteers can log faunal (animal) bones that need to be analyzed by the bioarchaeologist on staff.
It is important for repatriation (explore what that is here) that we have every single bone and object in a collection analyzed so that nothing is missing when the collection is repatriated. Once the bones have been analyzed, they are placed back with the rest of their collection if they are faunal, or moved back to the archaeology department’s restricted NAGPRA area if they are not. Being involved in the process of creating procedures gave me skills and an insight into why the museum works the way it does.
This internship has truly been an incredible learning experience. I’ve worked before in the front of the house for a museum, but to be able to work behind the scenes and see how we are able to take care of artifacts as they make their way from boxes to exhibits, or more importantly, back to their homes, is a joy. I hope to continue working in the field of archaeology, and this experience is one that I will be able to look back on for years and years to come. If you want to learn more about the museum and its collections, please consider volunteering for the SNOMNH at this link.
Author: Emily Wagnon