My Love of Museums

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.

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Intern Emily Wagnon Repackaging Faunal Bone

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.

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Faunal Analysis Staging Area

 

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

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Gaining Control Over the Legacy Collections

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Legacy Collections in the Archaeology Department

Of the over 10 million artifacts, objects, and specimens held at the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History (SNOMNH), over 6 million of those are in the archaeology department, the largest in the museum. When processing collections, difficult projects are sometimes laid aside to facilitate the processing of a greater number of collections. Other times, a project is simply forgotten about after a staff member leaves. These collections and materials left out and unprocessed are called legacy collections. Legacy collections are problematic because important finds can remain undiscovered, collections needing special preservation can deteriorate as they wait to be processed, and materials that should be returned to native tribes are easy to lose track of in the confusion. With large and numerous collections, and new materials being acquired through donations and field collections, it can be extremely difficult for museums to keep from getting behind. Many museums across the country face this same problem. The growing amount of legacy collections is one of the major contributors to the archaeological curation crisis.

 

In Fall, 2017, I interned in the archaeology department at the SNOMNH and worked on creating an inventory of the materials in the legacy collections, in addition to completing shelving processes for a few of the collections left unfinished by previous interns. I went through the shelves stacked with boxes and bags of artifacts, recording information about what the collections contained, where they were located, and important identifying information for the museum’s database, such as the site numbers (where they were originally found). Many times, I had to search the databases using the site numbers attached to artifacts in order to find the collection to which they belonged. One of my favorite collections had been held in a copy paper box on my desk, and was full of artifacts in plastic sandwich bags. The collection contained some really cool artifacts, including an 11 inch knife whose wooden handle had rotted away, a small metal bell with it’s clapper, several bags of different kinds of bullets and shells, animal jawbones with teeth still attached, and some very pretty stone tool flakes.

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Highlights from the Vera McKellipis Collection

The next issue was that the legacy collections at the SNOMNH needed to be organized. Replica cast material was mixed with other educational and research collections, making it difficult to prioritize and overwhelming to manage.  There wasn’t control over what was in the legacy collections, and no one knew the entirety of what they contained. Important research material could be available if only people knew where to find it.

In addition to that, there is great concern of finding material subject to NAGPRA (the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) within the legacy collections, such as human bone and associated funerary objects.  These materials must be prepared for return to native tribes, as part of the museums grants dictate.  This is such a concern that a large part of the archeology department is dedicated to dealing with NAGPRA and the processes of repatriating the materials. The interns of Spring 2017 found and had to correctly manage two different NAGPRA materials from two different collections.

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The inventory and protocols I created will to be used by the museum to keep track of both existing collections and new arrivals. I assigned section numbers to the shelves so the materials in the inventory can be efficiently located. I divided the collections by collection type (Research, Teaching, or Cast (replicas)), and I also gathered the all the NAGPRA materials and placed them together in their own area on the shelves so they can be addressed first.

 

Overall, it has been a rewarding experience, and I am happy to have made some contribution to clearing up the issue of the legacy collections at the SNOMNH.

 

 

Author: Wynne Clark

The Future is Bright

When I first declared my double major in Anthropology and Native American Studies at the University of Oklahoma, I knew I wanted to work with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) but I wasn’t quite sure how.

As an undergrad about to graduate, the future can be uncertain. When I first declared my double major in Anthropology and Native American Studies at the University of Oklahoma, I knew I wanted to work with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) but I wasn’t quite sure how. Being an indigenous student, I had been frustrated that the NAGPRA inventory process can take so long, I wanted to see change and I was convinced that I would be one of the people to bring change to the legislation in the future. Until this semester everything I had learned about NAGPRA had been theoretical, I knew how the process worked but I had never seen anything outside of a classroom. I began interning at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History as a way to put my last 4 years to the test. I wanted to see if this was really what I wanted to do with my life. In a way, I was on a quest to right the wrongs of the past, to be the ideal Anthro/NAS student. While I still wish to continue work with NAGPRA I have learned that issues such as repatriation and NAGPRA inventory are not as clear cut as one would assume, and that a “great quest” is not the way in which to go about working towards change.

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Interns Ash Boydston and Emily Wagnon make a final check on the contents of an Archaeology collection box before re-shelving.

I have been humbled by my experience here at the Sam Noble. The first time I handled human remains, I had to take a moment to myself afterwards to fully comprehend the amount of responsibility I had to not only the tribe, but to the person this once was as well. I had an idea of what to expect from my classes, but lectures and study sessions cannot compare to the real thing. After being a part of the process, I now understand just why doing NAGPRA inventory can take so long. There is a diligence that must be adhered to. In order to ensure that the Sam Noble Museum is up to NAGPRA standards and is fostering the best environment possible for indigenous relations, each step of the process must be meticulous. In order to move forward in an ethically responsible way tribes must be consulted on how they wish for their ancestors remains to be handled, and the Sam Noble Museum must listen to these requests. Is it not the spirit of NAGPRA to form relationships based on mutual respect and trust?

 

NAGPRA was, and remains a victory for native peoples, but NAGPRA’s journey cannot be over just yet. There are still many things to be examined and re-worked. One issue in particular that has stuck out to me is that of “Culturally Unidentifiable” remains. In the article NAGPRA and the Problem of “Culturally Unidentifiable” Remains: The Argument for Human Rights Framework by Rebecca Tsosie, she discusses the historical and legal contexts surrounding “Culturally Unidentifiable” indigenous remains. She examines the “competing interests” of tribes and scientists when ancient remains are under debate. Much of the argument over “Culturally Unidentifiable” remains relies on the “existence of an identifiable earlier group”. The simple problem with identification through anyone other that the actual tribe, is that tribes have not always identified by the standards that the US government has set forth in the past 200-300 years. To many tribes these remains are not “Culturally Unidentifiable”, these remains are their ancestors. The use of a colonized system to determine who may belong to what people, and not allow the people to determine for themselves who is a member is continued colonization that was intended to be address with NAGPRA.

NAGPRA has done considerable good work and has served as a stepping stone in the right direction for building ethical relationships with tribal peoples, but like all legislation it is not without flaws and should be considered for amendments. We have seen many laws amended and given additions to make the understanding and jurisdiction more clear, and while NAGPRA has undergone amendments and changes, it is still not as all encompassing as one would hope. We are fast approaching the 30 year anniversary of NAGPRA, and I feel it is time to re-examine NAGPRA’s reaches and consider ways in which to make certain details of the legislation involving “Culturally Unidentifiable” remains more clear in order to ensure the best protections and protocols are in place.

Author: Ash Boydston