- NMNH Home ›
- Research & Collections ›
- Department of Anthropology ›
- National Anthropological Archives ›
- John Peabody Harrington Collection
The John Peabody Harrington Collection
The J. P. Harrington Collection of linguistic and cultural materials is one of the most remarkable holdings of the National Anthropological Archives (NAA). The collection includes documentation on over 130 languages, many of which are now highly endangered or no longer actively spoken. For many of these languages it is the best historic record; for some, it is the only surviving record. Linguists and communities interested in language revitalization consider the collection a treasure.
The J. P. Harrington Collection also includes close to one million pages of notes filling over 1,000 archival boxes, plus over 200 sound recordings, some 3,500 photographs, and thousands of botanical and other natural specimens. The NAA materials are complemented by nearly 600 artifacts that also are part of the National Museum of Natural History’s Department of Anthropology collection.
J. P. Harrington carried out his research in much of North America during the first half of the 20th century. The majority of the collection represents ethnological and linguistic fieldwork in California and with Native people in the Southwest, Great Plains, and Alaska. J. P. Harrington’s research also extended into southern Mexico, across much of Canada, and along the eastern coast of the United States.
The significance of the collection extends beyond its linguistic value. Recognizing language as key to understanding a culture, J. P. Harrington assembled information on a wide array of cultural practices. For example, his interest in environmental knowledge can be seen throughout the collection. And his collection has been foundational for a range of studies in ethnobotany, environmental management, and environmental history.
The J. P. Harrington Collection is accessible to visitors to the NAAs, located at the Museum Support Center (MSC) in Suitland, MD. The NAA is currently working with tribes, linguists, private funders, and the Smithsonian’s Recovering Voices initiative to make the collection more fully accessible as an online resource. This website is a work in progress and will serve as a primary gateway to digital resources as they become available.
John Peabody Harrington (1884-1961) was an ethnologist and talented linguist employed by the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE) for forty years, from 1915 to 1955. He came to the Smithsonian after training at Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley. He became interested in Native American languages upon meeting historically renowned anthropologist A. L. Kroeber. J. P. Harrington was reportedly fluent in nine international languages and eighteen Native American languages.
Recognizing the level of endangerment facing indigenous languages, J. P. Harrington viewed himself as on an urgent mission to document as many as possible before they went silent. His “perfect ear” allowed him to easily pick up and record languages. Obsessed with accuracy, J. P. Harrington not only kept comprehensive notes, but frequently conducted “rehearings” with speakers to ensure the precision of his transcriptions. His linguistic abilities, combined with his thorough ethnological research and his relentless mission has resulted in some of the most extensive linguistic, anthropological, and ethnobiological data on the Native peoples of North America.
Throughout his Smithsonian career, J. P. Harrington was known for frequently disappearing into the field for extended periods of time. When forced to stay in Washington, D.C., he brought Native speakers to work with him at the museum. Completely immersed in his research, he often did not keep his employer or his family updated on either his location or his research results.
Devoted to documentation, he was slow to publish. Secretive about his findings, he avoided other linguists and anthropologists in the field, coded much of his work, and did not disclose the names of the speakers with whom he worked. As another level of protection, J. P. Harrington often stored his papers with friends and family rather than depositing them with the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE). It was not until after his death that many of his materials reached the Smithsonian, sent by friends and family members.
An eccentric personality, J. P. Harrington amassed an unprecedented record of linguistic and cultural knowledge that is a treasure of the NAAs.
For more biographical information see Golla 1994 "John P. Harrington and His Legacy." Anthropological Linguistics 33.4.obtain images from this page
[ TOP ]