Skip to main content.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
Website Search Box

Department of Anthropology

Mexican masks in storage


Access and Use of the Collections

On average, 200-230 visitors and researchers use the physical anthropology collections per year. Many of the scholars are internationally renowned scientists from all parts of the world who stay for extended periods to conduct research. Others are graduate students working on masters theses and doctoral dissertations.



The physical anthropology collections are not available for research loans to other institutions or universities.

Making Your Appointment

The collections are available for research on-site, by appointment only. Most of the collections are housed at the Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland (directions), but a few are located at the main National Museum of Natural History building, in Washington DC. The collections manager will let you know which facility when you make your appointment.

The Physical Anthropology Division can only accommodate a limited number of visitors, due to staffing and space constraints. It is best to plan your visit at least two months in advance, and to have alternative dates available in case we cannot accommodate you on your preferred dates. Our hours are normally Monday through Friday, 9:45 am to 5:30 pm, excluding federal holidays.

When making your appointment, please include a brief description or prospectus of your research. This will help the Physical Anthropology Collections Manager identify collections that may be advantageous to your research. Your research focus should be fairly specific.

If you are a graduate and undergraduate student, you should also send a short letter or e-mail from your thesis or dissertation advisor to indicate his or her support for you to perform your research at the Smithsonian and to indicate your familiarity in working with skeletal collections. Contact the Physical Anthropology Collection Manager, David Hunt.

By requesting an appointment, you agree to abide by the Visitor Services Policy.

Repatriation-related visits and consultations should be scheduled directly with the Repatriation Office by calling (202) 633-1899.


Equipment and Facilities

It is generally expected that you will bring your own equipment, such as measuring instruments, cameras, and computers. However, the Division of Physical Anthropology may provide the use of some equipment if you make special arrangements with the Physical Anthropology Collections Manager, David Hunt, well in advance of your visit. This will help us ensure that the correct equipment is present and available during your appointment.

Instruments: The Division has osteometric boards, sliding calipers (GPM, dial and digital, blade and needle type), spreading calipers (GPM, large and small), coordinate calipers, radiometer, measuring tape, mandibulometer, craniophor, pelvimeter, depth guage, and volumetric flasks. Curatorial staff have electronic 3-dimensional equipment (Polhemus and Micro-Scribe) but you must request the use of this equipment well in advance to allow the Physical Anthropology Collections Manager to request access from the curatoral staff.

Photography: The Division has a small photographic workspace with direct or flash photographic light systems. Copy stands, tripods, backgrounds, and scales can be made available for use, and in special circumstances, cameras (digital or film) may be available if requested in advance.

Radiography: The Department has a small three stage kVp (60 kVp / 30 mA, 80 kVp / 20 mA, 100 kVp / 15 mA) plain film radiographic unit which may be made available for producing a reasonable number of images. You must purchase your own film. This should be Kodak Min-R 2000 Ektascan B / Ra and X-Omat film since this has been determined to produce the best resolution with this set-up. The film cassettes available are either 24 x 30 cm or 35 x 43 cm size. The use of the machine requires advance negotiation for additional scheduling, number of images to be done, and payment for the costs of the developer chemicals.

The department has an on-site Siemens Somotom Emotion CT scanner.This scanner provides spiral 1mm slice and 3-D reconstruction. This equipment is use Smithsonian-wide and thus is in fairly constant use by staff. For access to this machine, scheduling is mandatory though the Physical Anthropology Collections Manager and the director of the CT unit, Dr. Bruno Frohlich. You will also need to negotiate the costs of using the machine, and for the technician's time as well.

Casting and Destructive Sampling

Casting: The Smithsonian Conservation Analytical Laboratory and the Anthropology Conservation Laboratory have determined that the introduction of chemicals from casting of objects and elements can be detrimental to the integrity and preservation of the NMNH collections. Therefore, if you would like to make casts of elements or materials (e.g., dental casting or cranial endocasts), you must submit a Sampling Request (see below).

Sampling: With the advances in bone chemistry and DNA research, there has been a increase in requests for destructive sampling. This type of research requires approval from the Department's Sampling Review Committee.

In order to properly complete a formal sampling request, you will be expected to list the catalog numbers of the specimens and the element(s) that you wish to sample. Curatorial staff will not select specimens for you; therefore you should plan to review the collections and make your selection(s) before submitting a sampling request.

Your proposal will be reviewed by the Sampling Review Committee. The committee often requests that researchers re-submit their sampling request with a revised sampling selection or a clarification of methodology. Therefore, you should submit your initial sampling request at least 3-5 months before planning your visit to do the sampling.


Use of Data and Images

Data: To help us increase and disseminate knowledge about our collections, we request copies of the results of your research. This may take the form of cleaned raw datasets, observations, or a copy of any publication, thesis, or dissertation that uses our collections as a major focus of the research. In the latter, please indicate that the collection is from "The Department of Anthropology, Smithsonian Institution".

Images: With staff permission, you may take photographs of collections materials for personal research use only. Museum staff reserve the right to limit photography if the specimen is too fragile for the handling or mounting required for photography or radiographic imaging.

You must obtain written permission to use images of the collections in any general distribution medium, including books, journals, other publications, exhibitions, theses, dissertations, and any form of electronic transmission. Please submit a Permission Request Form to the Physical Anthropology collections manager, Dave Hunt. Requests will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. There may be a photographic use fee, depending on the type of publication.


[ TOP ]