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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Department of Anthropology

Dr Bell making Maki for a wedding

Dr. Joshua A. Bell
Joshua A. Bell, D.Phil


Division: Ethnology

Area of Specialization:

Fax:  202-357-2208
E-mail Address:

Department of Anthropology Mailing Address


D.Phil in Social & Cultural Anthropology, University of Oxford (2006)
M.Phil in Ethnology & Museum Anthropology, University of Oxford (1998)
B.A., Independent Concentration, Brown University (1996)

Professional Activities:

Board member, Editorial Board Museum Worlds: Advances in Research
Board Member, Council for Museum Anthropology
Fellow of the International Centre for Language Revitalisation, Auckland Technical University

Research Interests/Profile:

Combining ethnographic fieldwork with research in museums and archives, my work broadly examines the shifting local and global network of relationships between persons, artefacts and the environment. I am interested in materiality, the politics of representation, transforming political economies and ecologies, as well as issues around the production and understanding of history. To date my interests have involved me in fieldwork since 2000 with communities in the Purari Delta, an ecologically diverse tidal estuary on Papua New Guinea’s south coast. Examining the social, economic and environmental transformations in the wake of regional resource extraction, I am also collaborating with I'ai communities to document aspects of their heritage and traditions. This work is complemented with on-going archival and museum-based research in Australia, Europe, Papua New Guinea, and the United States. At NMNH, I am carrying out two related collections based projects. The first, The Sweetness of the Stone-Age, examines the narratives found in, and around, the dispersed collections made during the 1928 United States Department of Agriculture's Sugarcane Expedition to New Guinea. The second project, Melanesian Networks, is a survey of NMNH's Melanesian collections (New Caledonia, New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanatau) to tease out the professional and personal relations, and histories, found in the Smithsonian's collections. Since 2011, I have been collaborating with Joel Kuipers (George Washington University) to lead a research team to examine the extraordinary intimate and global relations materialized in cell phones. To date we have conducted survey and interview work in the DC Metro region about the meanings and uses of cell phones across different communities, and have been conducting ethnography on cell phone repair.

Museums are a unique place to examine the movement of objects (both cultural and natural history specimens) and the knowledge they entail.  They are also important venues collaborative work between disciplines and, most importantly, with communities. To this end, I am actively involved in NMNH’s Recovering Voices initiative. I also work with interns and fellows, help supervise PhD theses, and teach at George Washington University.

Selected Publications:

Book Cover
Bell, J. A., A. Brown, and R. J. Gordon. Editors. 2013. Recreating First Contact: Expeditions, Anthropology and Popular Culture. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press.

Bell, J. A. 2013. "‘The Sorcery of Sugar: Intersecting Agencies within collections made by the 1928 USDA Sugarcane Expedition to New Guinea.'," in Reassembling the Collection: Indigenous Agency and Ethnographic Collections. Edited by R. Harrison, A. Clark, and S. Byrne, pp. 117-142. Santa Fe: School of Advanced Research.

Bell, J.A. 2012 "Museums as relational entities: The politics and poetics of heritage." Reviews in Anthropology 4(1):70-92.

Bell, Joshua A. 2010. Sugar Plant Hunting by Airplane in New Guinea A Cinematic Narrative of Scientific Triumph and Discovery in the ‘Remote Jungles’. Journal of Pacific History, 45(1): 37-56.

Bell, Joshua A. 2010. Out of the Mouth of Crocodiles: Eliciting Histories in Photographs and String-Figures. History and Anthropology, 21(4): 351-373.

Bell, Joshua A. 2009. For Scientific Purposes a Stand Camera is Essential: Salvaging Photographic Histories in Papua. In: Morton, Chris and Edwards, Elizabeth, Photography, Anthropology and History: Expanding the Frame. Surrey: Ashgate, pp.143-170.

Bell, Joshua A. and Geismar, Haidy 2009. Materialising Oceania: New ethnographies of things in Melanesia and Polynesia. The Australian Journal of Anthropology, 20(1): 3-27.

Bell, Joshua A. 2009. Documenting discontent: Struggles for recognition in the Purari Delta of Papua New Guinea. The Australian Journal of Anthropology, 20(1): 28-47.

Bell, Joshua A. 2008. Promiscuous Things: Perspectives on Cultural Property Through Photographs in the Purari Delta of Papua New Guinea. International Journal of Cultural Property, 15(2): 123-139.

Bell, Joshua A. 2006. Marijuana, Guns, Crocodiles and Radios: Economies of Desire in the Purari Delta. Oceania, 76(3): 220-234.

Bell, Joshua A. 2006. Losing the Forest but not the Stories in the Trees: Contemporary Understandings of the Government Anthropologist F.E. Williams’ 1922 Photographs of the Purari Delta, Papua New Guinea. Journal of Pacific History, 41(2): 191-206.

Bell, Joshua A. 2003. Looking to See: Reflections on Visual Repatriation in the Purari Delta, Gulf Province, Papua New Guinea. In: Peers, Laura and Brown, Alison, Museums and Source Communities: A Routledge Reader. London: Routledge Press, pp.111-121.


Basketry: Making Human Nature (2011) Contributed to this exhibit, which was the result of the multi-disciplinary project, entitled ‘Beyond the Basket: Construction, Order and Understanding’ funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), and shown at the Sainsbury Center for Visual Art, University of East Anglia.


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