Museums bring objects closer to home
In November 2014, a box arrived at an archaeology lab on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus bearing a postmark from Arizona. The crate with wooden slats and dovetail corners seemed like something from an earlier time — when packages looked like they had traveled over both land and sea.
The shipment signified the reversal of a trend in the mid-20th Century to move cultural artifacts around the country among museums in an effort to tell the story of the first peoples. Now archaeologists recognize the value of keeping these collections closer to their communities of origin.
Archaeologists at the University of Alaska Museum of the North carefully removed the crate’s lid and found layers of foam protecting about 100 artifacts tucked into slots. These objects, originating from the Interior, Point Hope and St. Lawrence Island in Alaska, had been sent to an Arizona museum in the 1940s and 1950s, a time when it was common for museums to collect items representing the world’s cultures.
The box contained a wide variety of items, from harpoon heads and arrowheads to knife handles and a needle case. The box also contained human figurines and images, carved bears, winged objects and combs.
Josh Reuther is the UAMN curator of archaeology. His focus is on geoarchaeology — understanding the changes in human technological and subsistence systems. But he has another responsibility. To ensure that the people of Alaska and the museum both have a role in understanding the history and prehistory of the landscape development of urban and rural communities.
“We wanted to bring the collections back to the regions where they were collected,” he said, “so that they will be available to both community members and researchers.”
Reuther’s connection to Arizona helped facilitate this particular transfer. During a visit to the Arizona State Museum in Tucson last year while he was completing his Ph.D., Reuther discussed the possibility of returning the objects exchanged by the two museums.
“All were in favor of the concept,” Reuther said. “We agreed it was the right thing to do. Neither collections were being fully utilized as far as research, teaching and public visitation because they were far away from the regional areas where they were collected.”
John McClelland is the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act coordinator at ASM. He said the original exchanges occurred during a period when most large museums sought to assemble collections for exhibits that represented cultures throughout the United States and the world. “Since then, collections policies have changed considerably, partly because of ongoing consultation and collaboration with Native American tribes and Native Alaskan villages. Many tribal representatives now prefer that the objects made by their ancestors remain in the region where they originated.”
Reuther and Scott Shirar, UAMN’s archaeology collection manager, worked closely with ASM to coordinate the transfer, which went both ways. Shirar said the items returned to ASM included archaeological objects from the Southwest: pottery, stone tools, textiles and baskets.
“Researchers and community members in Arizona will be excited to have these collections back,” Shirar said. “Especially the complete pots and sandal fragments, which aren’t always well-preserved in the archaeological record and therefore pretty rare.”
Curators at ASM have begun reintegrating the returned items with existing collections. McClelland said information about the returned items will also be shared with tribal representatives.
UAMN will continue to seek the return of Alaska items by reaching out to more museums in the Lower 48 and coordinating exchanges like this one.
“We are hoping to reunite objects from several collections that were broken up, piecemeal, with the communities where they were collected,” Reuther said. “Reuniting all of the parts and pieces of these collections will also help researchers who will be able to come to one place to view and analyze artifacts. Hopefully this will encourage development of more research in the collections.”