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Archive for the ‘Natural History’ Category

This blog post is a slightly edited version of a talk I gave last Friday to our regional professional organization, New England Archivists. We have a one-day meeting in the fall, and this year it was held at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston. Our theme for the meeting was ethics in archives, and each of the nine presenters discussed collections or events that dealt with ethical challenges. 

Like librarians and doctors, archivists have a code of ethics that guides our work. You can read ours here: Society of American Archivists: Core Values and Code of Ethics for Professional Archivists. Shared discussion and consideration with colleagues is an important way for us to develop and learn as professionals, especially about ethical questions, which are always matters of judgment.


Describing Archival Collections—Ethical Considerations

It’s hard to say no to your boss, especially when it’s your first job as a professional archivist. Reprocessing the

Frederic Brewster Loomis (AC 1896) Papers

took far more of my time and labor than either of us expected. Negotiating this collection and its ethical demands was both personally and professionally challenging. Looking back now, nearly a year later, I find that I can better trust my own ethical judgments and see more vividly the violence inherent in overly “neutral” or “objective” descriptive practices.

Replacing an imperialist, genocidal mascot–Lord Jeffrey Amherst, who proposed gifting  smallpox-infested blankets to Native communities–with a huge purple mammoth was an excellent idea. The 20-ft tall inflatable version in the right-hand image above greeted our new first year students this fall.


Why do we have a mammoth?

image4

This guy, Frederic Brewster Loomis. He’s the one on the left.

His friends called him “Mud Puppy.” He’s standing in the workroom next to the Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi) fossil skeleton he recovered in 1923 and 1925. 

The new mascot meant that this paleontologist’s two boxes of papers were now a priority to reprocess, with an eye towards eventual digitization. This seemed to be an easy job for the new archivist (me). But when I began reading Loomis’s accounts about the 1923 and 1925 digs in Melbourne, Florida,I realized that in addition to mammoth fossils, Loomis recovered human remains and artifacts.

Suddenly, this collection was not as easy as I had expected it to be.



As I continued processing, I began noting the locations of Loomis’s worksites, which could be vague, noted only by a creek or town name. I also began looking for more context in museum and anthropology literature, focusing on the 1990 North American Graves Repatriation and Protection Act (NAGPRA), and the ethical responsibilities of institutions holding Indigenous bodies and artifacts.

NAGPRA reviews and inventories had in fact been conducted for the holdings of the Beneski Museum of Natural History, Amherst’s science museum. Loomis’s work had focused on museum collection growth, and his shipments of  fossils became a large percentage of the holdings.

 


 

BOO the UNDEAD T. rex @SUEtheTrex. Portrait shows the T. rex's large open mouth and many sharp teeth. Profile text-Legendary Fossil. Apex Predator. National Treasure. New Suite Getter. All Caps Name Haver. They Them Pronoun User. LARGE MURDERBIRD. Chicago, IL (via South Dakota).I initially assumed that the non-human fossils were not an ethical concern, until I remembered SUE. The T. rex fossil at the Field Museum (Chicago, IL) had been purchased at auction for $8 million after protracted court cases were required to determine ownership after the 1990 dig on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation.

The Field Museum does science outreach and education through SUE’s Twitter persona, @SUEtheTrex.

The museum’s site about SUE discusses how they came to the museum, and what paleontologists have learned about tyrannosaurus rex.

The non-human fossils were valuable resources, and their removal to Amherst College was not harmless. For more analysis, I recommend Lawrence Bradley’s book Dinosaurs and Indians in the references.


 

In order to acknowledge where the specimens like our mammoth came from, I used ARCGis (precision map creation software) to map Loomis’s digs with varied precision, depending upon his location descriptions in publications and correspondence.

Overlaying maps of Indigenous nations’ homelands and treaties allowed me to identify the peoples Loomis and fellow paleontologists before and since had exploited.

A map of South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, and the Lakota Pine Ridge Sioux Reservation. Arrows and circles show dig sites.

This map shows where South Dakota, Nebraska and Wyoming meet, with green circles around the locations where Loomis recorded digs. The names of Indigenous nations indicate the recorded names of the nations as different treaties were signed.

 


 

But even “non-reservation” land had only been taken barely a generation before: Loomis was digging at Wounded Knee Creek 40 years after the Wounded Knee Massacre of Lakota men, women and children in 1890.

A map of Wounded Knee Creek on the Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation, with the label

This map zooms in onto the Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation. Wounded Knee Creek was the only identifier Loomis noted for these excavations, so the entire length of the creek is highlighted.



I wanted to provide researchers with this context and to create description that acknowledged the harmful nature of this creator’s work and how exploration and exploitation entwine in fieldwork and research across fields, and to recognize the Indigenous communities affected by his excavations, without ignoring Loomis’s dedicated work as a faculty member and teacher.

Here’s what I wanted to write:

This dead white guy stole lots of stuff for

Overly blunt summary can be a satisfying reaction when confronting people’s harmful actions, but this phrasing would not help a researcher wanting to understand Loomis and his papers.

 



I ended up with this:

Throughout his career, he collected both fossils and Native artifacts for Amherst College collections from the homelands and reservations of Native nations.

—Biographical note, Frederic Brewster Loomis (AC 1896) Papers, 1896-1938 https://asteria.fivecolleges.edu/findaids/amherst/ma18.html

Furthermore, one paragraph of the biographical note explicitly situates paleontology’s development within the settler colonial wars against Indigenous peoples of the late 19th century, and its contribution to other forms of resource extraction like mining and oil (and other fossil fuel) extraction.

That paragraph took a lot of revision: was I editorializing? Over-interpreting?

My own judgment was that omitting this background would in fact be contributing to the white supremacist and settler myths of science and individual careers as worth more than human lives and well-being.



The second descriptive tactic I used involved the mapping I described earlier.

June-September 1931

Accompanied by Louis H. Walz (AC 1931) and John W. Harlow.

South Dakota: Porcupine and Wounded Knee Creeks, Pine Ridge Reservation. In Oglala Lakota Nation.

Wyoming: Van Tassell. On Lakota and Arapaho homelands taken by the Act of February 28, 1877.

—Expedition chronology, Frederic Brewster Loomis (AC 1896) Papers, 1896-1938 https://asteria.fivecolleges.edu/findaids/amherst/ma18.html

In creating a chronology of his fieldwork, I named the nations where Loomis worked. The repetition over his 20+ documented digs helps underline and reinforce Indigenous presence and sovereignty. This example corresponds to the highlighted site on the second map image.


 

Part of archival work is documenting who and where our collections come from. We keep records about our collections that track how we acquired the materials we hold. In archives, we typically define collections by their source (whether from a person, a family, or an organization like the Office of Admissions). This practice (and related actions like not mixing materials from different origins, even if the documents refer to the same events) reflect a key principle of archival work that we call provenance.

provenance

n. (provenancial, adj.) — 1. The origin or source of something. – 2. Information regarding the origins, custody, and ownership of an item or collection.

Notes: Provenance is a fundamental principle of archives, referring to the individual, family, or organization that created or received the items in a collection. The principle of provenance or the respect des fonds dictates that records of different origins (provenance) be kept separate to preserve their context.

Society of American Archivists. “Provenance.” Society of American Archivists Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology. https://www2.archivists.org/glossary/terms/p/provenance.

By acknowledging the true costs of past scientific fieldwork supported by the College, and refusing to continue the myth-making about unused wasteland and White discoverers, I simply extended the same principle to include the subject of the collection, not just the origin of the physical papers.


 

Archival description expresses professional ethics and values.

—Principle 1, from the Revised Statement of Principles for Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS)

New revised principles for our professional standard for describing archival materials are under consideration by the Society for American Archivists.

These new principles begin with the fundamentals of what we do, and why we do it. Description is ethical work. How we describe records’ creators, subjects, and content is and should be a place where we stop enabling Whiteness and its associated myths. Academic disciplines require sources for fuel like any other fire, and for too long, communities, peoples, and lands constructed as “other” have been those sources.


 

References

  1. Bradley, Lawrence W. Dinosaurs and Indians: Paleontology Resource Dispossession from Sioux Lands. Denver: Outskirts Press, Inc. 2014.
  2. Caswell, Michelle. “Teaching to Dismantle White Supremacy in Archives.” The Library Quarterly 87, no. 3 (2017): 222–35.
  3. Dussias, Allison M. “Science, Sovereignty, and the Sacred Text: Paleontological Resources and Native American Rights.” Maryland Law Review 55, no. 1 (1996): 84–159.
  4. Redman, Samuel J. Bone rooms: from scientific racism to human prehistory in museums. Harvard University Press, 2016.
  5. Society of American Archivists Technical Subcommittee on Describing Archives: A Content Standard (TS-DACS). “Revised Preface and Statement of Principles for Describing Archives: A Content Standard.” under consideration, posted Aug 6 2018. https://github.com/saa-ts-dacs/dacs/pull/20.

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Amherst College’s records are filled with names that would seem unusual today, like Preserved Smith (grandfather – 1828, grandson – 1901), or Heman Humphrey (2nd college president, 1823-1845). It’s less common to come across a name that stands out because it sounds modern to our ears. I was surprised when I found letters to a Crystal Thompson, curator of the Zoological Collection—written in 1923.

At first, I thought that the name might be an example of a name’s gender association changing, as with the name Leslie1, because the first letter, from Feb. 20, 1923, was addressed, “Dear Sir.”

Milton Bradley Company, Springfield, Mass. Feb. 20, 1923 Dear Sir: We have your favor of the 15th and believe your trouble can be corrected by loosening up the screw, which goes through the adjusting button on the left hand side of the rule, and taking an ordinary carpenter screw, laying it against the straight blade, square up your rule. Be sure the rule sets in position when you tighten the screw in the cam button. We enclose herewith direction card. If this should not overcome your trouble, please advise us further. Very truly yours, G. Falek.

Instructions for fixing a troublesome paper cutter, from Milton Bradley Company

However, the second letter (sent Mar. 13, 1923) was addressed to Miss Thompson. Now I was very curious.

Springfield, Mass. Mar. 13, 1923 Miss Thompson, The Zoological Collections, Amherst College. Dear Madame: We are today returning to you the Monarch Cutter. This machine has been thoroughly overhauled, and we are sure you will find it does the work you require in a satisfactory manner. We are enclosing circular showing the other sizes we manufacture. Awaiting your further favors, we remain Very truly yours, G. Falek. Milton Bradley Company.

This following letter, to Miss Crystal Thompson, reports the successful return and repair of the troublesome paper cutter.

Here was someone even more unusual—a woman working as curator of Amherst’s natural history collections. These letters are in the Department of Biology collection, with others concerning laboratory and museum supplies and material orders.

The Amherst College Biographical Record, which lists alumnae/i, college administration, and faculty, had no listing for Crystal Thompson, but the Amherst College Catalog for 1919 shows Crystal Thompson, M.A. as Curator of the Zoological Collection (as well as one Harriet Oakes Rogers, B.S., as Curator in the Chemistry Laboratory).

With a bit more research in the Board of Trustees’ Minutes, I found that Crystal Thompson had come to Amherst from the University of Michigan.  Their online yearbooks and other digital collections revealed that she had received her B.S. in 1909, her M.A. in 1910, and worked as an assistant in the Zoology Museum from 1911-1919. She co-authored several publications on regional reptiles and snakes, and their archives (via the Bentley Historical Library Image Bank, which is a digital library like our own Amherst College Digital Collections site, ACDC), has this 1918 photograph.

A young woman wearing a camp shirt, khaki pants, and field boots, sits on a tree stump in the woods.
Crystal Thompson, in woods of North Carolina, 1918. Image HS14930. University of Michigan Library Digital Collections.

She worked here at Amherst from 1919-1927, then returned to Michigan to be the curator of visual education when they opened a new museum building. She spent the rest of her career at Michigan, retiring in 1958.

There’s a lot that remains unknown about women employed here at Amherst College, especially before the 1940s. The first woman hired to teach was Madeleine Utter, as an interim French instructor just for the 1918-1919 academic year. Crystal Thompson was hired as curator the next year, along with Harriet Rogers for the Chemistry Laboratory.

As World War 1 was underway, there may have been a relative shortage of male candidates available, creating opportunity for these women at Amherst. Thompson’s arrival could also have resulted from the hiring of Professor Otto Glaser (who had been at the University of Michigan) as Chair of the Biology Department in 1918.

From around 1914 or so, the secretary to the President and other administrative positions are listed in the college catalogs, and names like Gertrude and Esther begin to appear. A systematic listing has not been created, but the catalogs are always available for anyone who is curious.


1. In 1900, Leslie was the 91st most popular boy’s name, while in 1997 (the last year it was within the top 1000, it was 881. As a girl’s name, Leslie was 646 in 1900, jumped sharply in the 1940s to the top 200, and remained there (hitting 56 in 1981) until 2010, when it began falling in popularity. You can search for any name at “Popular Baby Names.” Social Security Administration, 2017.

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I hope everyone had a chance to glimpse the partial – or total – solar eclipse on Monday.  All this talk of our recent “Great American” eclipse got me thinking about previous eclipses and two early eclipse chasers in Amherst history: David Peck Todd (AC 1875) and Mabel Loomis Todd.  David Peck Todd, graduate of Amherst class of 1875, Professor of Astronomy, and Director of the Observatory, made his first solar eclipse expedition with the U.S. Navy to view the eclipse of 1878 in Texas.  This was just the first of many expeditions to view and study solar eclipses.  After their marriage in 1879, Mabel Loomis Todd (most famous for editing Emily Dickinson’s poetry) accompanied David Todd on many of his expeditions, including to Japan, Tripoli, and Russia.

Recent articles have been published about the Todds and their astronomical expeditions, including The Star-Crossed Astronomer by Julie Dobrow and Mabel Loomis Todd’s Poetic 19th-Century Guide to Totality by Maria Popova.  These articles document the Todds’ international travels in pursuit of the study of solar eclipses and other astronomical occurrences.

Mabel Loomis Todd later gave speeches about her experiences on these international expeditions and published several books and articles, including Total Eclipses of the Sun (1894), Corona and Coronet (1898), and A Cycle of Sunsets (1910).

While the papers of David Peck Todd and Mabel Loomis Todd are held at Yale, we do have many publications of the Todds’ astronomical research, professional papers, newsclippings, and speech announcements in their respective biographical files.And do keep these “Directions for Observing the Total Solar Eclipse” handy for the next solar eclipse coming our way in 2024.

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Camping Out

1873 Camping Out by C. A. StephensWith summer heat now upon us here in Amherst, many a thought is turning to tents and s’mores.

How did camping come to hold such a central place in the dominant national narrative of summertime? I’m pretty sure that anyone in the town of Amherst 200 years ago would have been deeply perplexed by the idea of voluntarily sleeping in the wilderness in a canvas tent just for fun (in fact, the even concept of “leisure time” and using it for “fun” would have been quite suspect).

I pulled together a handful of books from the archives to look at the questions of “How did camping get to be a thing?” and “For whom?”

(more…)

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