Heart Sac(k): An Iñupiaq Consultation

On the morning of May 22, 2017 Rosemary Ahtuangaruak received an Honorary Doctorate of Humanities from Oberlin College for her extraordinary work as an Iñupiaq environmental, cultural, and political leader and human rights activist. Later that afternoon, Oberlin gained something very special in return: expert knowledge from Rosemary about a series of century-old cultural objects made by indigenous peoples of the Arctic and now housed in our Anthropology Department.

Rosemary is from the northern Alaskan village of Nuiqsut, where she has served as mayor, and she has spent her life advocating for the health of Arctic peoples and their lands. Her congressional testimony to oppose oil and gas development in culturally and biologically significant places in Arctic Alaska contributed to President Obama’s decision to ban oil drilling in large areas of the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans. I was thrilled when, after the graduation ceremony, my colleague, Arctic cultural geographer Chie Sakakibara, brought Rosemary and her family members Lucy Brown and Mae Masuleak over to the Anthropology Department for a quick tour of the Arctic ethnology collection. This collection, a set of about 36 objects that Oberlin obtained in 1889 through an exchange with the Smithsonian1, is one with which Oberlin student Cori Mazer OC ’17 and others had been working over the past several months. Unbeknownst to me, Cori had also been a student of Chie’s, and Chie had invited her too to the gathering.  Minutes later Cori arrived, still wearing her graduation robe, and accompanied by her delighted parents.

What was planned as a brief tour emerged, over the course of several hours, as a richly informed consultation, as Rosemary, with input from her Iñupiaq companions, shared detailed knowledge of traditional materials, techniques, uses, and meanings of nearly two dozen ancestral objects from communities across Alaska and Canada.

Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, Mae Masuleak, and Lucy Brown (L to R) examine a wooden spear thrower in the collection.

Before we get to the incredible consultation with Rosemary and her family, let’s take a step back. What, readers might ask, is an Arctic ethnology collection doing at an Ohio liberal arts college? Anthropologist Jane Walsh has shown how, in the nineteenth century, museums like the Smithsonian (then called the United States National Museum) regularly used their specimens as a form of currency, negotiating trades with other institutions in order to build and diversify their own holdings.2 In this Victorian-era economy of scientific collecting, transactions could span multiple continents. Portions of the extensive arctic ethnological materials gathered by famed Smithsonian naturalist Edward Nelson, for example, were disseminated to the Paris Trocadéro Museum, to recipients (possibly private collectors) in New Zealand and Australia, and, closer to home, to U.S. colleges and universities including the Harvard Peabody Museum, Wesleyan University, and Oberlin College.3 Over a dozen objects from the Nelson collection were housed in what was then called the Oberlin College Museum,4 a natural history museum which faded from use in the 1950s (not to be confused with today’s Allen Memorial Art Museum, established in 1917).

Since that time, the objects from Oberlin’s old natural history museum have been housed in departments across campus. They are now being brought together in one digital repository. This is good news for the Arctic collection, and for those who take an interest in it. This means students and faculty, but it also means individuals like Rosemary, members of indigenous communities who are interested in what collected objects can reveal about the lifeways of their ancestors. With ancestral objects scattered across daunting geographic and cultural distances, collection consulting visits like Rosemary’s are becoming increasingly common, as indigenous community representatives and museum personnel seek opportunities to exchange knowledge. The stories and information indigenous consultants provide helps museum professionals store, conserve, and handle collections in ways that are better attuned to the values and traditions of their source communities.  A lively literature has emerged on how museums might trade traditional didactic exhibiting approaches with more inclusive and culturally attuned public engagement practices.5

2 books
Recent collaborative exhibition publications from Smithsonian Books (L) and the University of Alaska Press (R).6

For Native community members like Rosemary, museum consulting visits provide opportunities to view the types of garments, tools, and ceremonial objects they may not have seen since their youth, or have only heard about from their own elders. This is in part what made our commencement day consultation so memorable for everyone involved. Wassilie Berlin, a member of a group of Yup’ik elders viewing ancestral collections at the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin in 1996 put it this way: “I’m thankful for the objects we have looked at which we don’t see at home anymore…While the white people push for assimilation, they apparently would also make it possible for us to see cultural objects in gatherings like these.”7

The chance to study, discuss, and re-connect with material culture from an earlier time can also lead to knowledge repatriation when the information and excitement is brought back and shared with the wider community. The “primary concern” of delegations like the Yup’ik elders in Berlin is not, Ann Fienup-Riordan explains, “to reclaim museum objects but to re-own the knowledge and experiences that the objects embodied.”8And so it was with Rosemary and her family members, who brought an infectious sense of wonder and excitement to their consultation of the items in the Oberlin Arctic collection.

Our session was educational, humbling, and sometimes emotional, such as when we encountered special objects like a shaman’s rattle whose residual power warranted a moment of prayer to clear the air.

I will not report here on every object we examined. Instead I want to convey some of the atmosphere and content of our consultation. This includes Rosemary’s commentary, expressed in either direct quotation or summary form below, and Q & A as we sat together over the objects. Interspersed are observations about the encounter and thoughts on its larger contexts from my own perspective as an anthropological archaeologist at a liberal arts college. Heath Patten’s photos and descriptive information compiled by Cori Mazer and Alice Blakely (both OC ’17) provide further details about the objects that others may find useful.

Quyanaqpak to Rosemary, Lucy, and Mae for helping commence a new chapter in the lives of these special objects.


There are four gorgeously stitched membrane bags in Oberlin’s Arctic collection, and I admit to a particular affinity for them. I’m not sure why. My paternal grandmother was a seamstress, albeit of cotton garments in a New York City sweatshop, rather than of animal tissues by the Bering Sea. Perhaps it’s my general fascination with organic technologies: materials made by nature and transformed by human ingenuity—antler into spear points, bark into cloth, or woven grass into baskets. For whatever reasons, these bags speak to me. They are semi-translucent, expressive, and visibly complex.  They are also brittle, creased, and in desperate need of conservation. So for both of these reasons the first object we pulled for investigation was a drawstring pouch from the Aleutian Islands, and I was pretty sure it was made from seal gut.

“Heart sac!”  Rosemary immediately observed.

Heart sack? I was confused. I knew it was a pouch or sack, but what was the heart part?

Heart sac—from around an animal’s heart, Rosemary explained. Pericardial tissue.  Not seal gut, heart sac.

Instantly, the full import of this impromptu consultation came home to me. This gathering promised to be Rosemary’s gift, a labor of love to help educate others about her Arctic ancestors’ ways of life. The other non-Alaskans in the room felt the electricity too. We quickly launched into documentary mode, taking a series of notes, photos, and voice recordings.

iduĝilgix  (“bag, sack”)
Unangax, Aleutian Islands, Alaska
Collected by L.M. Turner between 1878-1881
Oberlin College Ethnographic Collection TUR.C1.fhiq.0139, NMNH 129337
27 cm long x 23 cm wide

The bag is large but close inspection shows it was made from at least three pieces sewn together, which suggests the tissue is from a land rather than marine mammal.  This type of material is easily torn during hunting and removal from the animal. This fact, and the quality of the stitching, including a special technique used on the inside, demonstrate this is a very special bag, made for a community leader.  It could have been used to collect plants or berries, or to hold personal items, dried meat, or spiritual items.

AVM: Would all seamstresses have been women? 

RA: It was probably made by a woman, but shamans could also sew; they sewed all of their spiritual regalia, and the sewing itself was considered a spiritual act.

“You would try to think about it [obtaining a heart sac] but when you go out hunting you don’t go out thinking about how to kill the animal, it’s against tradition to be bold or braggart, taboo to name the kind of animal you want to hunt in advance, it can produce badness around the hunt. You must keep good thoughts, be responsible, not argumentative, take care of your equipment, be respectful of your community – all these were expected of the hunter.” – Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, 2017

Materials: mammalian heart sac, eider feathers, braided caribou sinew strings, non-Native cotton flour sack, possible non-Native thread used around the cotton cloth.

photo credit: Chie Sakakibara

This was my first such consultation, but object-rooted knowledge exchanges like this one are playing a role in a vibrant set of indigenous cultural revitalization movements taking place across arctic North America. The Alutiiq Museum is a tribal museum at the forefront of local heritage renewal efforts through their Alutiiq language, community archaeology, and arts programs. I’ve been fortunate to follow these developments since the museum welcomed me as a dissertation researcher over a decade ago, and I am constantly amazed at the depth and reach of their public programming. The museum is a rich repository of ethnological and archaeological collections from the Kodiak Archipelago.

Perhaps my favorite example of recovering knowledge through object study involves five Alutiiq women who recently travelled to Finland’s National Museum in Helsinki to view Alutiiq garments in the museum’s early 19th century Etholin collection. They returned to Kodiak with new insights into traditional Alutiiq skin sewing techniques which they shared with students in a number of rural high schools. Together, adults and youths completed an elaborate caribou skin parka, which is now on view at the Alutiiq Museum. The lengthy materials list reveals a blending of new and traditional, and includes sea otter skin, ermine, and goat hair, as well as artificial sinew, acrylic paint, and embroidery floss. In the past, the parka would also have been embellished with the beaks of puffins, which are now a protected species. How did the team manage to recreate the beaks?

They 3D printed them.

ikkun (“skin preparing knife”) Yup’ik, Alaska Collected by J. Applegate, 1887 Oberlin College Ethnographic Collection APP.C1.ab.0474, NMNH 127381 9.2 cm long x 6.85 cm wide

“This skin preparing knife was made by a very gifted flintknapper.  You can tell because the blade is very thin, and the edge was sharped with one, expertly-placed blow.   The knife was made for a skilled skin sewer who clearly cared about taking good care of her skins.”  -Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, 2017

AVM: So the flintknapper would have been different from the user?

RA: A few people might do both knapping and skin work, but normally tool-making was a man’s job in the Arctic.  Exceptions would be two spirits, who embodied both female and male elements.  They may have been occasionally made fun of in their home communities but also recognized for their special spiritual powers.  Another exception would be a person who needed to learn both skills out of necessity, like a woman without close male kin.

AVM: What would happen if the blade broke? Could you make another and place it in the same handle?

RA: No, probably not.  This blade is especially thin and would be hard to replicate.  You’d probably need to make a whole new setting.

Materials: wood, stone

This brings us to another dimension of ancestral object conservation, a dimension reflected in Rosemary’s work as an Iñupiaq environmental leader. It is no coincidence that efforts to sustain and nurture traditional cultural practices are taking place across a bellwether region of global climate change. Sea ice is warming at an alarming rate along the Alaska North Slope, and there is increased unpredictability in the availability of resources that the area’s Iñupiat residents rely on for nutritional and cultural sustenance, like the bowhead whale.9 Alpine ice patches in the North American interior are swiftly melting, revealing fragments of prehistoric tools and weapons that were once locked in permafrost. In a terrible irony, these valuable records of past peoples and their environments are only emerging for study now due to the forces responsible for their imminent destruction.

In coastal Southwestern Alaska archaeologists and local Yup’ik residents are collaborating in a race against time to recover information at Nunalleq (“Old Village”), a water-logged site that contains perhaps the richest record of prehistoric Yup’ik materials ever found. Evidence of warfare at the 700 year-old site corroborates Yup’ik oral accounts of the famed Bow and Arrow Wars, a period of strife that may have been spurred by climatic changes associated with the Little Ice Age. As the researchers work, receding permafrost and coastal erosion are actively washing the site into the Bering Sea.

nuguaq (“small wooden doll”) or irniaruaq (“pretend person, doll”)
Yup’ik, Kassianamute, (Togiak River) Alaska
Collected by J. Applegate, 1886
Oberlin College Ethnographic Collection APP.C5.clah.4605, NMNH 127294
13 cm long x 8 cm wide

AVM: Would this have been made for a little girl to use?

RA: Yes, it could have been a child’s toy but it could also have been a shaman’s tool.

“If they [the shaman] were trying to go against somebody, they would have made something that looks like that person, with the same type of material they wear in their clothing, to give them the power against that person.  They would even collect something from that person: like fingernails, hair, even a drop of blood, to add to the shaman-type doll, because it has to have a part of the body from when you’re using the shaman’s tools…[whisper] This is really neat…” -Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, 2017

Materials: wood face, cotton cloth and thread, seal skin and ground squirrel skin parka, feet are  probably scraps of caribou fur from around the foot region of the caribou’s body, wolf fur trim at hemline and cuffs is, fur around face may be beaver; head scarf and thread are man-made (non-Native) materials.

The Arctic collection at Oberlin itself houses encapsulates a remarkable depth of ecological knowledge. To cite just one example, our visitors explained how an artisan could use the inner, summertime bark of a willow to create a red dye like that found on Ingalik (Deg Hit’an) servingware. A storage pouch from the Yukon River was crafted from salmon skin, caribou leather, sinew and dye; each material had to be gathered and prepared in specific ways before the bag could be assembled. The bowl and ladle that William Dall collected both feature a distinctive beveled edge that suggests the two pieces were carved by the very same hand. In contrast, an Iñupiaq arrow is tipped with baleen (the filtering material from a whale’s mouth) tied in a style that was likely shared by an entire community.

The consultation brought home the simultaneous utilitarian, social and spiritual functions these objects once played. In graduate school my professors offered a tripartite scheme to illustrate the different ways an object might “work.” A candle, for example, might have a “techno-function” (to light a room), a “socio-function” (to light a birthday cake), or an “ideo-function” (to light to alter).10  The scheme was never intended as an either/or framework but practically speaking, it is easier for archaeologists, who are often vastly separated in time, space, and traditions from the people they study, to focus their inquiry on reconstructing an object’s practical functioning.  It’s humbling to contrast the consequent interpretations with the multi-layered meanings of even seemingly everyday objects when they are presented in context.

Object MCK.C1.ad.0098 for example, is a small container probably used for collecting berries. It has a sinew handle, a sturdy cedar body that has been steamed and bent into shape, and a bit of red staining in its bottom creases, perhaps from escaped berry juices. According to Rosemary, steaming the wood properly was a repetitive and time consuming task: the techniques were difficult to teach and learn, and many uncertainties in the process meant things could still go wrong. So, as with pottery-making and metal-working in many non-industrial societies, steaming cedar effectively called for prayer and song – in addition to technical knowledge and hand skills.

vido nigidhi’oy  (“wooden food bowl”) or tritr tth’og (“wooden bowl”)
Deg Hi’tan, Alaska
Collected by W. H. Dall, 1869
Oberlin College Ethnographic Collection DAL.C1.a.0091, NMNH 8792
34.4 cm long x 20.5 cm wide

The picture that emerged that afternoon was of a series of cultural treasures.  We marveled at the thinness of a carved bone spoon and the perfect stitches a Yup’ik seamstress used to craft a durable storage bag.  Rosemary feels several of the pieces were made for someone very special like a whaling captain or shaman, based on their style, the materials used, or the special care with which they were made.

Rosemary’s insights also complicate our understanding of the “everyday” because even common items like a berry container or skin-preparing knife embody both utilitarian and spiritual notions of usefulness that are impossible to dissociate in their indigenous context. Yet their very existence at Oberlin as the subject of consultation is somewhat ironic given that most of these objects, even if beautifully crafted, probably weren’t made to last beyond one person’s lifetime.

Victorian scholars, permeated by a milieu of scientific racism and Western agriculture-based notions of land use and property, tended to view members of hunter-gatherer societies as simple and careless with respect to material possessions;11 they failed to understand how a highly mobile, subsistence lifestyle is incompatible with the vast accumulations of stuff to which 19th century natural history cabinets were the ultimate ideological testimony.

“… preserving, conserving, or even passing material things on from one generation to the next was not part of our culture; our heirlooms are our traditional Inuit knowledge preserved through our oral tradition.”12 -Robert Watt, President, Avataq Cultural Institute (2001)

Naturalist-collectors like Edward Nelson and the museums they worked for preserved cultural objects as physical records of cultural traditions.  In doing so, they injected these otherwise transitory things with meanings formed around notions of scientific discovery and taxonomy-building. Today the legacies of ethnological collections are taking new forms as indigenous communities engage with ancestral objects in ways that are not always traditional – gathering over objects arrayed in museum back rooms or campus labs,  closely observed, cameras flashing – but are nonetheless important pathways to renewing and sharing deeply-rooted cultural knowledge for future generations.

Rosemary Ahtanguarak’s consultation has helped us understand how the Arctic objects on Oberlin’s campus are irreplaceable repositories of cultural, environmental, and historical information, and it is essential that we (in the broadest sense) continue to learn through them.

Mae Masuliak and Cori Mazer (OC ’17). Photo credit: Chie Sakakibara

Amy Margaris is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Oberlin College and de facto curator of the Oberlin College Ethnographic Collection.  She teaches and publishes in the areas of archaeology, colonialism, museum studies, and material culture analysis.  Special thanks to the editorial eyes of Libby Murphy, Chie Sakakibara and Jason Haugen.


1. Amy V. Margaris and Linda T. Grimm. 2011. Collecting for a College Museum: Exchange Practices and the Life History of a 19th Century Arctic Collection. Museum Anthropology Vol. 34(2):109–127.

2. Jane Walsh. 2002. Collections as Currency. In Anthropology, History, and American Indians: Essays in Honor of William Curtis Sturtevant, pp. 201-209. Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology Number 44, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.

3. Jane Walsh, personal communication.

4. Amy V. Margaris. Forthcoming.  Bark Blankets and ‘Esquimaux Implements from Alaska’: Revisiting a Historic Oberlin-Smithsonian Exchange..  Smithsonian Institution Arctic Studies Center Newsletter;  Amy V. Margaris and Linda T. Grimm. 2011. Collecting for a College Museum: Exchange Practices and the Life History of a 19th Century Arctic Collection. Museum Anthropology Vol. 34(2):109–127.

5. For example, see Kevin Coffee. 2008.  Cultural Inclusion, Exclusion and the Formative Role of Museums.  Museum Management and Curatorship 23(3):261-279; Gretchen Jennings. 2015. The #museumrespondtoFerguson Initiatives, A Necessary Conversation.  Museums and Social Issues 10(2):97-105; Miriam Kahn. 2000. Not Really Pacific Voices: Politics of Representation in Collaborative Museum Exhibits.  Museum Anthropology 24:57-74; Ivan Karp and Steven D Lavine. 1991. Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics and Museum Display. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.; and Caroline Lang, John Reeve, and Vicky Woollard. 2006. The Responsive Museum: Working with Audiences in the Twenty-first Century.  Ashgate, Burlington, VT.  I am grateful to Emma Baxter (OC ’17) for bringing many of these references to my attention.

6.  Aaron L. Crowell, Rosita Worl, Paul C. Ongtooguk, and Dawn D. Biddison, editors.  2010.  Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska.  Smithsonian Books, Washington, D.C.; Sven D. Haakanson, Jr. and Amy Steffian, editors.  2009.  Giinaquq Like a Face: Suqpiaq Masks of the Kodiak Archipelago. University of Alaska Press, Anchorage.

7. Ann Fienup-Riordan, editor, Marie Meade, translator.  2005.  Ciuliamta Akluit: Things of Our Ancestors, pp. 403, 405.  University of Washington Press, Seattle, WA and Calista Elders Council, Bethel, AK.

8. Ann Fienup-Riordan, editor, Marie Meade, translator.  2005.  Ciuliamta Akluit: Things of Our Ancestors, p. xxii..  University of Washington Press, Seattle, WA and Calista Elders Council, Bethel, AK.

9. Chie Sakakibara. 2017.  People of the Whales: Climate Change and Cultural Resilience Among the Iñupiat of Arctic Alaska.  Geographical Review 107(1):159-184.

10. William L. Rathje and Michael B. Schiffer. 1982. Archaeology, pp. 65-6. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, New York; Michael B. Schiffer. 1992. Technological Perspectives on Behavioral Change, pp. 9-12.  University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

11. Robert L. Kelly. 1995.  The Foraging Spectrum.  Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.

12. Lucien Turner, edited by Stephan Loring. 2001. Ethnology of the Ungava District, Hudson Bay Territory, p. iv.  Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.







Moving Day for the Ethnographic Collection (a photo essay)

After years of planning, Oberlin reaches the final stage in giving its Ethnographic Collection a new home.

At first glance the place was more reminiscent of a long-forgotten Cold War bunker than a museum storage facility, thanks to the burned-out light bulbs and ranks of indestructible metal storage lockers draped in plastic sheeting and a thick top coat of sticky dust.

Yet the scene owes to the fact that in the early 2000’s my predecessor Dr. Linda Grimm taught a series of museum anthropology courses that succeeded in vaulting the Oberlin College Ethnographic Collection into a new phase of life. Under her guidance cadres of students researched and documented each of the nearly two thousand cultural artifacts that made up the nearly-forgotten collection. Records were filed. The collection was digitized.  Then, lacking sufficient space, funding, and personnel to allow the physical collection to be out and actively used, the team lovingly packed it all away.

They filled boxes and metal cabinets and labelled them so that future users could keep track of what goes where. Years later their exactitude was a huge help as, thanks to a generous donation and a great team of professional art movers, this week the Oberlin College Ethnographic Collection left its old home in a pair of custodial closets for a new dedicated climate controlled space in the college’s main library.

Mixed messages greeted the rare visitor to one of the collection’s two previous storage areas.

2017-08-14 14.45.02

Up until today the cabinets of Storage Closet C shared space with a roughly 200-pound chalk board on wheels, a lengthy apparatus for changing light bulbs, and some rather nice copper piping. Draped plastic was our insurance policy against possible leaks.










On moving day, the ten metal cabinets were emptied and their contents placed on labelled carts for transport.

A cushy layer of ethafoam lined each shelf.  Here, Dan (R) is seen carefully shrink wrapping everything to hold it in.


0806180908a Bows, bows, and more bows! Our southern African holdings are mostly from Tonga/Tsonga and Zulu communities in Mozambique but appear to be straight out of Black Panther’s Wakanda.


8:35 a.m. A grand view of Edward (L) and Alfonso (R) schlepping the largest of the emptied metal cabinets while I enjoy a leisurely Egg McMuffin.
So long, Storage Closet D

When Harry Potter first moved in with the Dursley family he was forced to sleep in a cupboard under the stairs, just like this one.


(This is really happening!)
and hello, Mudd Library.

The staff at Mudd Library (soon to be christened the Mary Church Terrell Main Library) have been steadfast partners in this project and created a dedicated space for the Ethnographic Collection.

Now the entire collection is housed in close proximity to related scholarly materials in the College Archives and Special Collections  (like photos and letters from the missionaries/teachers who first collected the objects), and to study rooms where students can conduct hands-on research with the ethnographic objects.




Head mover Brian carefully places each object back on its proper shelf.
By 1:15 pm all ten original cabinets and their belongings are tidily arranged in their fresh space.  Even my sticky notes survived the transport.

Wood-Lee International Art Movers

Thank you to Woody, Brian, Ed, Alphonso, and Dan of Wood-Lee International Art Movers and to the many Oberlin College staff, students, alums, administrators, and faculty who have played a hand in making this years-long dream come true.

On to the next phase!

Amy Margaris is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Oberlin College and de facto curator of the Oberlin College Ethnographic Collection.  She teaches and publishes in the areas of archaeology, colonialism, museum studies, and material culture analysis.

A History of the Herbert G. May Near East Study Collection

Oberlin student Julian Hirsch (OC ’20) contributed the following essay that details the history of one of the college’s most important dangling collections, an assemblage of archaeological materials from the Near East that is housed in Oberlin’s Religion Department.  Julian is now leading an energetic effort by fellow students, faculty, staff, and others to revitalize the Herbert G. May collection and make it more accessible for teaching and student research.


The Herbert G. May Near East Study Collection, named after former Oberlin College religion professor Herbert May (taught 1934-1966, 1970-1973), encompasses a wide variety of archaeological material (mainly pottery) from the Southern Levant (Israel, Palestinian Territories, Jordan). Representing a vast time span ranging from the Pottery Neolithic (6500 B.C.E) to the Byzantine Period (640 C.E) the collection served to tie the Biblical texts which Oberlin students studied, first in the Theological Seminary and later in the Religion Department, to the material culture of the ‘Holy Land.’ This tying together of history, archaeology, and Biblical text was a popular scholarly practice for much of the late 19th and 20th centuries and served as the impetus for Oberlin and many other institutions’ acquisitions of these sorts of educational collections.

Today, the collection contains roughly 200 complete objects as well as about 500 individual pottery sherds. The material includes several complete pottery vessels, lithic materials, ground-stone objects, metal objects, carbonized seeds, Roman glass, Roman building material, various impressions of cylinder seals, and some miniature replicas of artifacts from the wider Near East. While most objects are authentic, some are facsimiles as identified by Dr. Jodi Magness in 2012.

Acquisition and History of the Collection

The material which today makes up the Herbert May collection was acquired from numerous sources and by several key figures between c. 1870 and 1980. In 1880 William Gaye Ballantine was hired at Oberlin College as a Professor of the Old Testament. Prior to his time at the college in the 1870’s, Ballantine had served as part of the American led Palestine Exploration which mapped out and recorded Biblically relevant archaeological sites on the western side of the Jordan River. Although not certain due to a lack of proper recording and accession, it is likely that a portion of the pottery sherds and vessels in the May Collection come from Ballantine’s travels.

Following the initial introduction of large-scale excavations to the ‘Holy Land’ in the 1890’s, archaeological interest in the region bloomed as several institutions began establishing their own digs. The year 1900 saw the founding of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) and an accompanying research center in Jerusalem that continues to operate today as the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research. During the 1914-1915 academic year, Oberlin’s then Professor of Old Testament, Kemper Fullerton (taught 1904-1934), was meant to serve as a Fellow at this research institution. His time there though was cut short due to the outbreak of the First World War. Despite this, preceding his evacuation from then Ottoman Palestine in December of 1914, Fullerton had the opportunity to visit various local historical sites and several excavations which were being undertaken at the time. It is likely that some of the material in the Herbert May Collection comes from Fullerton’s travels and acquisitions.

In 1919 Oberlin’s then President, Henry Churchill King, was invited by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to survey the holy land with the intention of gathering information from local peoples to facilitate the smooth establishment of the post-war mandatory system that divvied up much of the region between the Britain and France. It is entirely likely that King acquired a limited volume of material which he brought back to the College and which was later incorporated in the Herbert May Collection.

The inter-war Mandatory Period (1922-1939) is widely regarded as the golden age of archaeological excavation in the southern Levant due to the sheer number of large-scale, well-funded, excavation projects which were undertaken simultaneously. One such project was at Megiddo, the Biblical site of Armageddon. During the 1920’s and early 1930’s Herbert G. May, who was then a PhD student in Theology at the University of Chicago served as the site’s photographer. In addition to his site photographs, May also took pictures during his travels throughout the region. These 3,000 photographs converted to slides today make up the Oberlin special collection’s H.G. May Archaeology of Palestine Collection. In addition to his photographs, Herbert May collected pottery vessels and sherds from various sites throughout mandatory Palestine. Some of these materials were given to him as gifts, as in the case of the material from Megiddo, while other material was likely purchased in antique shops in Jerusalem.

Figure 2. Professor Herbert G. May
Herbert G. May
Courtesy of Oberlin
College Archives

Herbert G. May was hired by Oberlin in 1935 in order to serve as Kemper Fullerton’s replacement at Oberlin’s Theological Seminary. He brought along with him his collection of slides and photographs as well his collection of archaeological objects.  These materials were used as a teaching aid in classes about the Old Testament. Some of this material was on display in a lecture hall often used by May in the Peters building where it remained at least until 1973 when Herbert May passed away.

The final additions to the Herbert May Collection were acquired by May’s successor, Harry Thomas Frank. Though Frank was not an archaeologist, he was passionate about the subject and was instrumental both in the establishment of Oberlin’s excavation at Tel-el Hesi in Israel in 1970 and Oberlin’s acquisition of an Early Bronze I (3700-3100 B.C.E) burial assemblage from the site of Bab-edh Drah located in modern day Jordan. This tomb group, comprised of 14 pottery vessels, arrived at the college in 1980 by which point Harry Thomas Frank had passed away. With no one to curate the collection, the Bab-edh-Drah material was placed into religion department storage along with the rest of the Herbert May collection. In 2002 and 2003, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Oberlin’s religion department, the Bab edh-Drah tomb group was exhibited in Mudd Library. The objects soon after returned to storage where they have remained since.

Photos atop archival storage boxes indicate their contents.

Following her hiring in the early 2000’s, Oberlin’s current Professor of the Old and New Testament, Dr. Cindy Chapman, led an initiative to significantly improve the storage conditions of the Herbert May Collection. To facilitate this, archival storage boxes and humidity controlled cabinets were purchased to house the collection and to display a limited portion of it. In 2009, Professor Chapman mentored Dr. Craig Tyson (D’Youville College) as part of his CRLT mentorship program while he was then a graduate student at University of Michigan. Dr. Tyson worked with an undergraduate student to photograph and accession a portion of the collection. This represented the first major effort made to organize the collection and to make it more accessible.

In 2012, Dr. Jodi Magness (UNC Chapel Hill), a classical archaeologist specializing in the Southern Levant, came to give the Religion Department’s annual Haskell lectures. During her time at Oberlin, she had the opportunity to assess the collection. Magness concluded that the collection contained no completely unique artifacts and that its best use would therefore be as a resource for future students and their learning.

Professor Chapman most recently facilitated the most recent efforts to organize and catalog the Herbert May Collection by sponsoring a Winter Term project devoted to that goal which took place in January of 2017. The work done during this Winter Term project laid the foundation for the current efforts being made by Julian Hirsch to further organize the collection.

Today, only two boxes of material from the collection are in active classroom use. Professor Chapman incorporates a box of varied Roman material into an Introductory course about the New Testament and uses a box containing Late Bronze and Iron Age material for her course about the Old Testament and its Near Eastern context.

Attempts to Organize the Collection Pre-January 2017 Winter Term

The 2009 accession project undertaken by an undergraduate student and Dr. Craig Tyson produced a system of accession numbers as well as a certain number of object photographs. The accession system they developed is referred to as the HMC (Herbert May Collection) system. Presently, this accession numbering system is still in use for most of the collection’s complete objects. This system relies on a primary category number (1=Pottery, 2=Lamps, 3=Replicas and Writing, 4=Metal) along with ascending secondary numbers to differentiate each object within the categories.

Although this organizational system provided many of the objects with accession numbers, a great number of smaller items including the collection’s entire group of pottery sherds, were left unnumbered and were left without any sort of organization besides being placed in large quantities into uncategorized cardboard boxes. While some photographs were taken, the digital files for these photographs have since been lost leaving behind only printed thumbnail sized photographs. Unfortunately, no effort was made at that time to digitize the collection or to make it accessible online.

In recent years, interest on Oberlin’s campus has significantly grown with regards to the digitization, preservation, and recordation of many of Oberlin’s unused, historical teaching collections. This growing interest led Professor Cindy Chapman to organize a Winter Term project in 2017 with the goal of better documenting the Herbert G. May Near East Study Collection.

Winter Term January 2017

In January 2017, Professor Cindy Chapman sponsored a group Winter Term Project titled ‘Practicum in Curating Archaeological Pottery.’ In order to facilitate the program and help students on a day to day basis, veteran Levantine Archaeologist and Oberlin alumnus, Dr. Jeffery Blakely (University of Madison, Wisconsin) kindly took up residence at the college for the month. Professor of Anthropology Amy Margaris also assisted as she provided guidance to the Winter Term students during their creation of an object database. The nine students who participated in the project were: Samuel Chapin, Bryton Smith, Rayna Solbeck, Walter Campbell, Haley Jones, Elizabeth Altier, Maria Altier, Nalin Beckman, and Julian Hirsch.

Figure 4. Bryton Smith sits with newly accession numbered objects
Bryton Smith (OC ’19) giving pottery sherds accession numbers during the 2017 Winter Term May Collection practicum.

Throughout the month the participants worked to create a database which would contain the totality of objects in the of the Herbert May Collection. This database was created in Excel and includes categories for object numbers, box numbers, current object locations, object types, material, and when possible, the object’s period, and site of origin. The document also contains a comments section that when possible includes a transcription of descriptive 3×5 index cards which Herbert May created for some of the objects.

Early on during the month, it was decided for simplicity’s sake that already existing object numbers would not be replaced by a new accession numbering system. Rather, a secondary accession system was created whereby artifacts without existing HMC numbers would simply be assigned an ascending number as its new identity. Part of the group’s decision to use this simple system as opposed to something resembling the HMC numbering put in place in 2009 was that this system did not require collection specific knowledge to understand. At the start of the January 2017 Winter Term, the various sub-category meanings for the HMC collection had been forgotten and therefore needed to be deciphered. It was decided that a simple system was advantageous since it could be easily understood without having to be deciphered.

Throughout the Winter Term, the group worked together to enter data into the database, create accession numbers and identify what could be said about individual objects through consultation with both Dr. Blakely as well as through guided research using archaeological publications and library materials.

Figure 5. Photographing a Bab-edh Drah Tomb Pot during Winter Term
Photographing a Bab-edh Drah tomb pot during Winter Term.

Each student also participated in object photography using the Oberlin College Archive’s photography apparatus guided by Oberlin’s Visual Resources Collection Curator, Heath Patten.

This was a two-person process wherein one student would take digital photographs using a computer while another would be responsible for positioning the object and lights to minimize shadow. In order to give the entire group a chance to participate in all the necessary tasks, the various jobs were traded around so that everybody could get a feel for the different types of steps which go into the creation of an object database.

In addition to the group work undertaken during the winter term, each student also had the opportunity to undertake personal research projects using the parts of the Herbert May Collection which interested them most. These projects encompassed a wide array of subjects including pottery from the different periods represented in the collection, lithics, and cylinder seal impressions.

Figure 6. Research apparatus during Januarry 2017 Winte
Archaeological publications proved to be essential for locating objects parallel to those in Oberlin’s collection and for insight into provenance and period of temporal origin.

Ultimately, every student who participated in the Winter Term project learned a great deal about the material culture and history of the Southern Levant. The group effort led to a great deal of collaboration and mutual interest as students engaged with and shared updates on their individual research projects. By the end of Winter Term each student developed an understanding of the history of Oberlin’s participation in Levantine Archaeology. The research undertaken by students was stored on a hard drive along with the database which was produced during the month. While this database contains every single object in the collection, it would benefit greatly from a degree of standardization as well as some additional research.

The Herbert G. May Near East Study Collection Today and Future Directions

Despite the great progress was made on the Herbert G. May Near East Study Collection during the January 2017 Winter Term, more work still needs to be done to facilitate its organization and digitization. While some of the collection was photographed during Winter Term, these photos were of varying quality and were unstandardized in their lighting, angles, and formats. Good quality edited photographs will be essential to future collection accessibility. Further, although the database created during the winter term period will serve as a fine foundation, it would benefit greatly from additional categories such as weights and measurements as well as additional research into likely periods of temporal origin for many artifacts.

The January Winter Term undoubtedly increased the visibility of the collection on campus. Over the past two semesters alone, The Oberlin Archaeology Society, a student run archaeology club, has used the collection for two separate object handling workshops. These well attended events have allowed for over 30 Oberlin students to personally handle artifacts as well as to learn about their origins and the material culture of the Southern Levant.

Figure 7. OAS Object Handling Workshop
Oberlin Archaeology Society Object workshop using the Herbert May Collection (October 2017).



Figure 8. Poster for Dr. Blakely Talk
In March of 2017, Dr. Blakely gave a talk in which he discussed Oberlin’s history of archaeological engagement with the Southern Levant. This talk was well attended and introduced several new students to the Herbert G. May Near East Study Collection and its origins.

More recently, Julian Hirsch has reinitiated work on the collection. He is currently organizing an effort made up of several students, faculty, and staff to digitize the collection with the eventual goal of making the objects visible online and increasing campus engagement with the collection. It is his greatest hope that these artifacts will one day find themselves in use in numerous courses taught by several departments.

While the Herbert May Collection is still to some extent dangling, it has great potential which is now starting to be exploited.

Part of the “May Collection team” strategizing in the college’s Mudd Library. Clockwise from left: Julian Hirsch, Ed Vermue, Heath Patten, Amy Margaris, Cindy Chapman, Megan Mitchell (Spring 2018).


A Note on Sources: All historical information in the first section comes directly from a talk given by Dr. Jeffery Blakely to the Oberlin Archaeology Society on March 4th, 2017. Much of the rest is recounted from the author’s personal notes taken during January 2017, notes taken by the January 2017 group to record their day to day proceedings, and from the author’s personal recollections. Other dates are taken from Dr. Craig Tyson’s c.v. or from Professor Cindy Chapman’s list of Archaeologically Related Activities in Biblical Studies from her time at Oberlin.

About the Author

Julian Hirsch is a rising Junior at Oberlin College majoring in Classical Civilizations and Archaeological Studies. He became interested in the Herbert May Collection when he participated in the January 2017 Winter Term project and has since helped to facilitate the collection’s use by the Oberlin Archaeology Society. He is currently in the process of restarting organizational work on the Collection and hopes to digitize it by the time of his graduation. You can read about Julian’s archaeology related activities at his blog https://trowelsarefun.wordpress.com/.

Africa for the Arctic

[Originally published as “Bark Blankets and ‘Esquimaux Implements from Alaska’: Revisiting a Historic Oberlin-Smithsonian Exchange”  by Amy V. Margaris. Smithsonian Institution Arctic Studies Center Newsletter, Issue 24, May 2017, pp. 45-48.]

As curator of the Smithsonian’s circumpolar ethnology materials, Igor Krupnik is intimately familiar with the collections obtained by some of the most famed Arctic naturalists of the 19th century. But the last thing he expected to see during a recent trip to Oberlin College in northeast Ohio was a portion of those collections stored in a big box in my Anthropology Lab.

Igor and I met in April 2016 when he came to campus to participate in a panel on indigenous peoples and climate change. We shook hands, and I mentioned that a colleague and I had been researching some interesting Arctic material that he might want to take a look at.  Later that day we unboxed the 36 ethnological objects which Igor was astonished to learn are associated with four of the Smithsonian’s greatest pioneers of Arctic science and anthropology: William Healey Dall, Lucien Turner, John Murdoch, and Edward William Nelson.

Igor & Amy_2
Igor Krupnik and Amy Margaris at Oberlin College unboxing cultural treasures from the North American Arctic. Photo credit: Chie Sakakibara

William Dall was the earliest of the group, and at the end of a long table we carefully placed a painted wood tray and ladles from his pioneering 1860s voyage up the Yukon River into Alaska’s interior. Their original National Museum exchange labels are still legible: “Ingalek Esqmx.”  Other objects in Oberlin’s Arctic collection were obtained in the era of the first International Polar Year (1882-1883) when Spencer F. Baird was Smithsonian secretary. Baird helped guide a number of naturalists onto IPY projects in Alaska and the eastern Canadian Arctic where they collected meteorological data and, on the side, worked to obtain cultural and natural historical specimens on behalf of the Smithsonian.

Dall later helped outfit a rookie Lucien Turner for his first Alaskan voyage, to the busy fur trade center of St. Michael (1874-77). Turner then spent the years 1878-1881 acquiring specimens in the Aleutians, and in 1882-1884 joined an expedition to the Fort Chimo (now Kuujjuaq) IPY station on eastern Canada’s Ungava Bay.  Turner somehow found time to fulfill his prescribed meteorological duties at Fort Chimo while also amassing enough material culture documenting the local Innu and Inuit peoples’ ways of life to produce the 1894 monograph, The Ethnology of the Ungava District, Hudson Bay Territory (reissued in 2001 with an introduction by ASC anthropologist Stephen Loring). Oberlin has six of Turner’s acquisitions representing each of his three scientific expeditions, including a carved ivory doll from Norton Sound, a seal gut sack from Unalaska (“Unalashka”), and a charming pair of snow goggles collected in “Mugara Labrador.”

Turner doll 1_300dpi
Ivory doll from Norton Sound, collected by Lucien Turner. Photo credit: Cori Mazer and Alice Blakely

Next out of the box was an iron-bladed knife with an antler handle inked with the name “P. H. Ray.”  Lieutenant Ray led the IPY station at Alaska’s Point Barrow and purchased over 1500 pieces of manufacturing and hunting equipment from Inupiat hunters who visited the station. However, it was the Baird-trained naturalist on the expedition, John Murdoch, who eventually documented the enormous collection in his lengthy 1892 BAE report, Ethnological Results of the Point Barrow Expedition.

Most of the remaining objects now spread across the table were obtained by the famed Edward Nelson.  (The other four were collected by I. Applegate, C. L. McKay, and Lieutenant G. M. Stoney.) Nelson began as Lucien Turner’s Signal Corps replacement at St. Michael (1877-81) but ventured far off the Corps’ beaten path during his excursions to document the natural history and peoples of the western Arctic. His extraordinary collection of roughly 10,000 cultural objects was complemented by photographic glass plates, field journals, and linguistic materials that help document the lives of the Yup’ik and other peoples with whom he interacted.

Nelson_walrus hide tag
Original U.S. National Museum label for “hoops of walrus hide,” part of the 1888-1889 Oberlin-Smithsonian Exchange. Photo credit: Cori Mazer and Alice Blakely

Igor and I shared a laugh at how Nelson’s Yup’ik trading partners famously dubbed him “the man who collects good-for-nothing things”:  the very netting shuttle pictured (LXXIII Fig. 26) in Nelson’s classic 1899 monograph The Eskimo About Bering Strait (reprinted in 1983 with an introduction by ASC director William Fitzhugh); a yaaruin, or storyknife, used by Yup’ik girls to scratch stories in the snow; hoops of walrus hide. As we reverently laid each object out for inspection, we mused that these were mostly workaday objects that were never intended to outlast their makers. Yet here they were – roughly 125 years after leaving the North – everyday things elevated to the extraordinary as documentation of 19th century Arctic peoples’ ways of life, and as testaments to the remarkable work of four famed Arctic scientists.

So how did these Arctic treasures become associated with a small liberal arts college in the Midwest? Linda Grimm, now Professor Emerita of Oberlin’s Anthropology Department, and I have delighted in tracking down much of the story.  (A fuller version can be found in Margaris and Grimm 2011).

We begin with the fact that in the mid-19th century, any U. S. college or university worth its salt needed a natural history cabinet. Science education was (thankfully) moving away from rote learning and recitation to a hands-on approach using specimen-guided laboratory instruction. By the 1880s the cabinet of teaching specimens at Oberlin College had grown from a medley of mostly donated specimens to a full-fledged museum – complete with letterhead stationery – and administered by the forward-thinking geology and natural history professor, A. A. Wright.

Lewis M. McCormick: National Museum curatorial assistant and Oberlin College student.  Reproduced with permission from the Oberlin College Archives.

Much of what we know about the Oberlin College Museum today comes from Wright’s museum accession book and correspondence preserved in the Oberlin College Archives. Together they document the wide network of scientists, locals, and Oberlin alums that Wright used to grow the college’s systematic natural history collections.  We know that Wright followed Spencer Baird’s lead in using specimen exchanges to help acquire diverse teaching collections, and by the early 20th century the Oberlin College Museum was home to thousands of zoological, botanical, and mineralogical specimens. Wright even employed a skilled student assistant in the museum, Lewis M. McCormick, who was eminently qualified – having worked as a taxidermist and osteologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum before enrolling at Oberlin in 1885.

Wright also corresponded with Oberlin alumni missionaries and teachers abroad requesting donations of cultural material. One of these, the Reverend Erwin Hart Richards (b. 1851—d. 1928) was able to supply Oberlin’s museum with hundreds of ethnological objects from Thonga communities in Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique) and the Zulu of South Africa. We’ve uncovered no documentation of the ethnology materials’ use in teaching, however, and Oberlin College did not offer regular courses in anthropology until the 1940s.  The evidence instead suggests that A.A. Wright valued Oberlin’s ethnology collections primarily as “currency” that he could exchange for items that would contribute more directly to the school’s teaching mission in the natural sciences. Indeed, the Richards collection from Africa caught the eye of the National Museum, whose own holdings were much more focused on the Americas. In 1888-89 Oberlin and the Smithsonian exacted an exchange.

Oberlin sent 89 African objects to Washington in 1888 including 28 bark blankets, 12 circumcision sticks, and one xylophone. (Their images can now be found on the Smithsonian Anthropology Department collections database, thanks to the work of recent Oberlin Anthropology major and 2014 Smithsonian intern Victoria Costikyan.)

Interestingly, 125 years before Victoria’s trip to the National Museum, another Oberlin student made that same journey: A.A. Wright’s assistant and former Smithsonian insider, Lewis McCormick. McCormick used his time and talents to select choice zoological and geological specimens for the college.  He also helped “close the [Oberlin’s] account” with Otis Mason’s ethnology department by sending Oberlin 73 ethnological specimens, including a lot of “45 Esquimaux implements” (as recorded in our museum accession book) obtained by Nelson, Turner, Dall and Ray.  The size of the lot and its association with these Arctic greats made it much more significant than the typical “starter kits” the National Museum occasionally sent to other small institutions. Yet we know little about what happened to this special Arctic collection after Oberlin received it in 1889.

gut skin bag_1
Expertly stitched seal gut and feather sack from the Aleutian Islands. Photo credit: Cori Mazer and Alice Blakely

The Oberlin College Museum closed in 1959 and its various cultural and natural history collections were left “dangling” without formal curatorship and institutional buy-in. Deemed out of date in light of new scientific modes of inquiry, the collections were shunted from building to building and eventually parceled out to relevant departments – a sadly typical story of demise for campus museums of the era. Eventually the ethnology collections were relegated to a pair of custodial closets where they sat basically undisturbed and unused for decades.

Recently I’ve been reminded of the famous 19th century painting by Charles Willson Peale that shows the artist and naturalist pulling back a curtain to reveal a series of wondrous natural treasures, each neatly arranged in his eponymous museum. The timing of Igor’s visit to Oberlin couldn’t have been more fortuitous because the college is in the process of “lifting the veil” from many of its own historical treasures. Linda Grimm and her students kick-started the process in the early 2000s when they created an online database for much of Oberlin’s roughly 1600-object ethnographic collection (http://www.oberlin.edu/library/digital/ocec/) which highlights our Richards collection from Africa and will soon include our Arctic material.

Today we can account for 36 of the Arctic objects obtained in the 1888-89 Oberlin—S.I. exchange. Most are in excellent condition but a few, such as the three bags constructed of fish skin or gut, need significant conservation work to help restore their delicate tissues, feathers, and other decorative details.  Current Oberlin students Cori Mazer and Alice Blakely are researching Oberlin’s Arctic collection for inclusion in our ethnographic collection database and an eventual campus exhibition – two ways to begin breathing new life into these once closeted treasures. We hope this newsletter article will bring further attention to Oberlin’s valuable Arctic materials, and more broadly, to the vast but largely underdeveloped teaching and researching potential of the historical “dangling collections” that are found on so many of our nation’s college campuses.

Oberlin is extremely fortunate that the College plans to move our entire ethnographic collection to new custom storage in our main library where it can be readily accessed for teaching and research. While that process unfolds, an interdisciplinary group of faculty and staff is working to develop a unified database of our many teaching objects that are scattered throughout the campus, including those once part of the Oberlin College Museum.

In this same spirit we can now begin to envision a centralized web space for Edward Nelson’s vast but widely dispersed ethnology collections – a sort of digital family reunion where objects that are physically disseminated across many institutions, including Oberlin and the Smithsonian, could be reassembled for cohesive study. “Nelson in the cloud” holds the promise of helping source communities become reacquainted with these old friends, and contributing to a wider understanding of the uses and meanings of these special objects.

Further Reading

Margaris, Amy V. and Linda T. Grimm. 2011. “Collecting for a College Museum: Exchange Practices and the Life History of a 19th Century Arctic Collection.” Museum Anthropology Vol. 34(2):109–127.

Amy Margaris is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Oberlin College and de facto curator of the Oberlin College Ethnographic Collection.  She teaches and publishes in the areas of archaeology, colonialism, museum studies, and material culture analysis.


Introduction: The Search for the Lost Ivory Banana

The ivory banana had gone missing. 

I was visiting the campus of a nearby Ohio college to research the past and future of 19th century campus teaching collections. This particular school was an early leader in field- and object-based instruction, and by the turn of the century boasted a well-stocked natural history cabinet that included roughly a thousand each of paleontological and zoological specimens, along with an assortment of “Indian relics from the neighborhood.”

Indian Relics
“Dangling collections”: natural and cultural specimens that were widely accumulated in 19th century U.S. college and university museums, but whose remnants now linger in institutional shadows…

Where were they acquired? Who had used them, and why? And where were they now?

It was morning time, and a campus administrator and I sat in her office discussing the fragmented whereabouts of the college’s collections. Like many progressive colleges and universities of the time, their natural history specimens had been acquired in the post-Civil War turn toward hands-on learning, only to fade from view in the college’s later years.

As we spoke, my host suddenly realized that one of the school’s most regarded historical collections had vanished almost before our very eyes.  A glass-fronted cabinet normally graced the entrance to the College President’s office. The elegant wunderkammer had contained a prized display of East Asian curios collected by missionaries and other tangibles that spoke to the college’s history of leadership and international network-building. But in the course of a recent renovation the President’s cabinet – along with all of its contents – was unaccounted for.

The case was still hot! We bustled to the nearby office of a biology faculty member with deep institutional knowledge who, equally stumped, joined us in our search.  Our pied-piper party grew as we next tracked down an alumna staff member with a certain stake in the missing cabinet. As an undergraduate, she had catalogued the contents of the President’s cabinet and other campus collections, launched an exhibit, and even published a companion catalog whose cover featured (somewhat bizarrely, I thought) a life-sized carving of a banana rendered in ivory.  Everyone that was now crowded around the staff member’s desk recalled this special fruit which, as the day progressed, became the focal point of a campus-wide quest to recover the lost President’s cabinet.

Finally by lunchtime two of us hiked to the newly refurbished President’s office, the scene of the disappearance, and anxiously paced the vestibule while administrative assistants (the true nerve centers of any college campus) unleashed a volley of phone calls attempting to track down the cabinet’s whereabouts.

Dead ends, all.  The cabinet was apparently lost and its contents vanished. I imagined them dumpstered as detritus of a bygone era, or pickpocketed by carpet installers. Or perhaps they were shuffled off to the basement that contained the college’s HVAC system – and was also rumored to be final resting place of flotsam and jetsam of the college’s 160 year history.

Objects not easily disposed of, but no longer valued.


Our mission to recover the missing cabinet became an uncanny pilgrimage of sorts as we retraced the historical journey of what I have come to call “dangling collections”: natural and cultural specimens that were widely accumulated in 19th century U.S. college and university museums, largely for the purpose of curricular innovation, but whose remnants now linger in institutional shadows, uncurated and museum-less, as a result of shifting ideals in science and anthropology.

Yet our story does more than illustrate the apparent ease with which legacy collections have been scattered and lost through time. It also underscores the burgeoning tide of interest across institutions in their documentation and revitalization.  Indeed, from art history to anthropology a larger movement toward materiality is afoot, so that many universities are now exploring what new value lies in old collections.

Institutional histories are being cast in new light through efforts to showcase and even shuffle objects from across traditional domains, from historical scientific instruments to botanical specimens, such as in Harvard’s 2015 University as Collector symposium and the Vassar College Artifact Project.  Other initiatives focus on a particular type of assemblage, like the upcoming New Lives for Old Specimens conference at Yale’s Cushing/Whitney Medical Library, which will highlight current medical research undertaken with the school’s historic anatomy collections.

Bird collection, Oberlin College

Natural history collections are helping scientists map changing species distributions in an era of rapid climate change, and periodically reveal new species entirely, such as the serendipitous 2016 discovery of an extinct variety of river dolphin on a shelf at the Smithsonian.  Scientists are also turning to DNA from relict specimens to redraw taxonomic trees, and may soon “de-extinct” lost species like the passenger pigeon.

But perhaps the most acute and concerted engagements with legacy collections over the past 25 years have involved Native Americans and anthropologists. As a result of a 1990 federal legislation called NAGPRA (the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) U.S. institutions that receive federal funding – nearly every college and university in the country, in other words – are mandated to inventory, consult with tribal representatives, and when possible, repatriate Native American ancestral remains and sacred objects – “specimens” which were once displayed in campus wonder cabinets alongside fossil fishes from the Upper Devonian.


My own interest in dangling collections is largely accidental.  As a new member of Oberlin College Anthropology department I inherited responsibility for a roughly 1800-object ethnology collection that lies neatly packed in a pair of broom closets. Meticulous work by my predecessor and her students had already begun to unravel the mystery of how these curios – from Zulu beadwork to Micronesian armor – arrived at Oberlin during a seemingly paradoxical historical moment of both great missionary and scientific activity. Their work culminated in a database for the Ethnographic Collection, while I slowly learned that the story was much greater than this collection alone. Oberlin College in the 19th century had assembled an impressive natural history cabinet, and I am fascinated by what the rise and ultimate demise of such campus museums reveals about the complex and changing relationships between the natural sciences, religion, and anthropology.

Zulu bracelet_cropped
Zulu beaded bracelet, Oberlin College Archives

Oberlin is also building a sort of natural history cabinet 2.0. Remnants of the original Oberlin College Museum (Zulu beadwork included) have catalyzed a vibrant collaboration across campus to document and revitalize our many historic teaching collections.   The project engages library and museum staff, faculty across several disciplines, alumnae, and cadres of students who, like their 19th century predecessors, are learning through objects.

Together we are digitizing bird and fossil specimens, exploring cross-disciplinary metadata standards, researching missionary histories, and working to re-connect cultural treasures from the Arctic with their indigenous source communities.

Ours is a journey still in the making.  This blog is my attempt to chronicle some key moments in that journey.

In the meanwhile, the story of the lost ivory banana has a happy ending. At the very end of my research trip I discovered the contents of the President’s cabinet in the college archives, carefully boxed and nested in tissue. The ivory banana lay near the top, and it was indeed wondrous in its realism and workmanship.  Its smooth, pale form lay prone on a polished hardwood base. Tooth or tusk had been expertly carved to depict a fruit whose peel appeared to be delicately lifted in sections, revealing fibrous ribbons of the fruit’s bitter inner wrapping.

Internet Ivory Banana
“The whole of Japan is a pure invention. There is no such country, there are no such people…the Japanese people are simply a mode of style, an exquisite fancy of art.” Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), The Decay of Lying (1899).

I later learned the piece was a Meiji era okimono, a type of Japanese decorative art object crafted for export in the late 19th century. I wondered about the carver’s identity, about the motives of the missionary or tourist who had carried the ivory treasure from the Pacific to the Midwest, and about the changing social contexts in which it had played a role.

But in the moment the ivory banana was simply a piece of the institution’s history, lost and found.  A connection to the past, now neatly housed in a campus space where it might be studied and made useful again.

Amy Margaris is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Oberlin College and de facto curator of the Oberlin College Ethnographic Collection.  She teaches and publishes in the areas of archaeology, colonialism, museum studies, and material culture analysis.