Sunday, December 23, 2012

Field Museum archaeological collections threatened

Mississippian objects a the Field Mus
The Field Museum of Natural History is one of the premier natural history museums in the U.S., with extensive collections in archaeology, anthropology, and many other disciplines. Last week, the Museum annnounced major budget cuts and restructuring that will reduce the scientific value of its collections. The museum evidently will cut back the scope of its scientific mission (collections and basic research) in order to pay back major debts and concentrate on exhibits.

This operation will be a disaster to archaeological research in a number of ways. First, the collections will be more difficult to access, and the infrastructural support for visiting scholars will undoubtedly be reduced. I have worked on Mesoamerican pottery in the Field Museum's collections on several occasions (the last time was just this past July). Museum collections are an invaluable resource for archaeology, crucial for many important research questions. See Smith (2004; n.d.) for some general statements of this view. For every object on display at museums like the Field Museum, there are perhaps hundreds (maybe thousands) curated in the research collections. If you haven't worked with museum collections, you should - there is an impressive amount of good, problem-oriented research to be done with these materials.

Aztec flute in the Field Museum
Here is just one example of the value of the Field Museum collections. The photo above shows an Aztec flute in the museum. I have excavated many small fragments of these objects in Aztec domestic middens, but never an entire example. When one just has the animal's ear, or a segment with a hole, or a fragment of the mouthpiece, it is hard to figure out just what these are pieces of. It is through study of the whole flutes in the Field Museum or other museums that I learned to interpret the tiny fragments of musical instruments, and of many other unusual items, from my excavations. Or consider our knowledge of Aztec music. Scholars such as Adje Both have reconstructed aspects of Aztec music by studying flutes like this and by playing them (and recording the tones and doing analyses of the sound diagrams). Museums are the only places with the resources for such research, and the Field Museum is one of the most important in the U.S. and the world.

A second negative impact of the proposed cuts concerns the curators at the museum. The Anthropology Department at the museum has a number of outstanding archaeologists who carry out original field research and also work on the collections. This is an important center for high-quality archaeological research, and the budget cuts cannot but injure this program.

Third, severe budget cuts will also have a negative impact on the archaeology program of the University of Illinois-Chicago. Their PhD program in anthropology has flourished through interaction with the scientific staff of the Field Museum, many of whom hold joint appointments with UIC.

Please sign the petition to save the Field Museum collections and scientific research capabilities.There is an article in the Chicago Tribune on the situation at the museum.


Smith, Michael E.
n.d.    Las bodegas de museos como fuente de información arqueológica: Las contribuciones de Felipe Solís Olguín. In Homenaje al maestro Felipe Solís Olguín, edited by Roberto García Moll and Rafael Fierro Padilla. Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico City. Volume in preparation.

Smith, Michael E.
2004    Aztec Materials in Museum Collections: Some Frustrations of a Field Archaeologist. Nahua Newsletter 38:21-28.


Charles Jones said...

I've signed the petition. As far as I can tell, the FMNH website does not link to the digitized versions of their scholarly publications at the University of Illinois:
Chicago Field Museum Fieldiana: A Collection of Digitized Books

Michael E. Smith said...

Charles- These big museums (AMNH, Smithsonian, Field Museum) tend to have lousy scientific/scholarly websites. IF you want to visit the museum with your kids, there are all kinds of jazzy web pages, but if you want basic reseasrch or scholarly information, forget it. Things are improving slowly, however.