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History of the National Anthropological Archives

In 1879, John Wesley Powell gained control of government anthropological research formerly in the hands of several federal geological surveys and brought it into the Smithsonian Institution. In appropriating funds to continue Powell's anthropological work, Congress required him to receive documents concerning American Indians collected by the geological surveys – mainly those led by Powell, Ferdinand V. Hayden, and George M. Wheeler. Thus began the collection that would become the National Anthropological Archives.

Although it is doubtful that Congress intended a continuing research organization, that was Powell's aim in organizing the Bureau of Ethnology (later the Bureau of American Ethnology) with the declared purpose "to organize anthropologic research in America." As part of the BAE, the archives fared well. Not only did it receive the anthropological fruits of the geological surveys – manuscripts at first but ultimately photographs as well – it also gained material concerning American Indian languages that the Smithsonian had collected since the 1850s. Eventually, the BAE research staff – some of the earliest field anthropologists – deposited materials they produced or collected. In addition, the BAE supported the work of many non-Smithsonian researchers, most notably Franz Boas and some of his students. Support was possible by purchasing field material for the archives with payment before production. Finally, the archives benefited from material donated by unpaid BAE contributors, an array of persons ranging from missionaries, frontier army officers, settlers, and travelers to gentlemen scholars and exploring scientists. Thus, over several decades, the archives grew into a highly valuable collection of documents concerning American Indian cultures.

In 1965, the BAE merged with the Smithsonian's Department of Anthropology to form the Smithsonian Office of Anthropology within the United States National Museum. Although not formally organized into a museum department until 1897, anthropology had been part of the museum's program from the early 1850s. Preceded by museum assistants like Edward Foreman who focused on anthropology, Charles Rau became curator of archeology in 1881, and Otis Tufton Mason was appointed curator of ethnology in 1884. In the research notes, photographs, and other documentary material of these men and their successors, the department of anthropology accumulated many manuscripts. Beginning in 1965, those materials were added to the BAE collection.

At that point the archives became the archives of the Smithsonian Office of Anthropology. More important than the change in name, however, was a change in focus. Except material from short-lived BAE ventures into American possessions, the BAE archives consisted exclusively of American Indian materials. The Department's documents, although primarily North American, concerned cultures around the world. This worldwide focus became the archives' own.

Shortly after these developments, the Smithsonian became involved in certain programmatic efforts to tackle broad contemporary problems. Several anthropological programs followed, and among them was the 1968 transformation of the Smithsonian Office of Anthropology archives into the National Anthropological Archives. The NAA was created in response to a widely felt need to preserve unique field materials, a concern resulting to a considerable degree from the reluctance of some repositories to accept the raw materials of science. Anthropologists gave their support to the NAA when, at its annual meeting in November 1968, the American Anthropological Association adopted a resolution urging the preservation of anthropological field materials and consideration of the NAA as a suitable repository for materials not committed to other institutions.

Since then, the NAA has sought to promote the preservation of anthropological materials and assist in locating materials of specific anthropologists. To that end, NAA personnel have been involved in the efforts of the Council for the Preservation of Anthropological Records. For its part in the general effort, the NAA accepts donations of field materials and other documents of American anthropologists or anthropologists with strong American connections who have studied man and culture anywhere in the world. The archives' mission includes not only the preservation of both field and anthropologically relevant nonfield materials of individuals but also the historically valuable records of national and regional anthropological organizations. The NAA also acquires documents that are of potential use to anthropologists even though they were not produced by anthropologists.

From Guide to the National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution. Revised and Enlarged, by James R. Glenn. (Washington, D.C.: National Anthropological Archives, 1996).


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