Accepted paper:

Collections, Science & Politics: Distributing Duplicate Anthropological Specimens at the Smithsonian Institution


Catherine Nichols (Loyola University Chicago)

Paper short abstract:

Analysis of the Smithsonian Institution's program of distributing duplicate anthropological specimens to educational institutions in the United States examines how objects acquire value(s) within the intersection of systems of knowledge production and political patronage.

Paper long abstract:

At its height in the late nineteenth century, the specimen exchange industry required museums to maintain stocks of duplicate specimens for trade. In addition to specimen-for-specimen exchanges, the Smithsonian Institution undertook an ambitious program of distributing duplicate specimens to regional and local museums, public libraries, and primary schools throughout the United States. Educational organizations seeking to increase the size and diversity of their collections were required to petition their political representatives in the U.S. Congress, who would forward the request to the Smithsonian Secretary. Politicians were copied on the relevant correspondence as the Smithsonian worked to fulfill each application. This paper surveys a temporal range (1880-1930) of this type of transaction, all of which involve the distribution of duplicate specimens from the Smithsonian's anthropological collection. Normative specimen exchange practice employs the use of a common value register (economic value) to ensure exchange equivalence. Smithsonian distributions use similar classification criteria and organizational procedures as specimen exchange, but discount the use of market value. Using archival correspondence and museum records, I demonstrate that the value of duplicate specimens was imbedded, at least discursively, in opaque systems of political patronage and favors, and financial appropriations. As a whole, specimen exchange and distribution function as parallel and overlapping systems in which museum objects acquire value(s) situationally. I consider the intersection of science and politics to extend analyses of the diverse contexts of value acquisition, while emphasizing the relational nature of anthropological objects.

panel P100
Collections as Currency? Objects, Exchange, Values and Institutions