Department of Anthropology
A History of the Department, 1897-1997

In 1897, Anthropology was established as one of three departments of the U.S. National Museum. July 1, 1997, marked the Department of Anthropology's centennial anniversary — 100 years of excellence and leadership in anthropological research; the formation of world-renowned collections; state-of-the-art management and care; and broad, international public outreach.

Smithsonian anthropology, however, began with the founding of the Institution in 1846. Systematic collecting was started at that time in what was called "its ethnological department." The Regents requested that the Institution "procure collections .... illustrating the natural history of the country, and more especially the physical history, manners and customs of the various tribes of aborigines of the North American continent." Early anthropological investigations were conducted by institutional collaborators (rather than staff members), for example, E. G. Squier and E. H. Davis, whose "Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley" (1847) formed the first volume of the Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge.

The arrival of Spencer F. Baird in 1850, as assistant secretary in charge of the National Museum, initiated the Smithsonian's first attempt at a systematic collection of anthropological material. In 1858, the Institution accepted the government collections, then displayed in the Great Hall of the Patent Office, which included objects gathered by the United States Exploring Expedition; Matthew Perry's voyages to Africa and Japan; and gifts from foreign dignitaries to American presidents, including the exotic and valuable objects from the King of Siam and the Sultan of Muscat. In the late 1870s, some five hundred paintings of North American Indian life by George Catlin and numerous artifacts were bequeathed to the ethnological collections. The collections were growing so quickly that a formal section of Ethnology was established with curators to care for ethnological and archaeological collections, and massive, more systematic anthropological collecting was instituted.

A Division of Anthropology was created in 1883; Physical Anthropology was added to it in 1904. From the beginning, the Museum's collecting and collections research in anthropology was world-wide, although with an emphasis on North America.

In 1879 Congress established the Bureau of American Ethnology (B.A.E.) as a separate, purely research unit of the Smithsonian, independent of the National Museum. The focus of the Bureau's research was on North American Indian cultures, including important works in ethnology, archaeology, and linguistics. The B.A.E. effectively founded American anthropology (especially ethnology and linguistics) at a time when there were no advanced university degrees in the field and there were almost no full-time anthropologists employed anywhere else. The 200 Bulletins and 48 Annual Reports of the B.A.E. were the premier publications in anthropology in the country for most of the 86 years of the Bureau's existence. In the 1940s, the research of the Bureau expanded to cover the rest of the Americas, especially with the founding in 1943 of a sub-division for research and teaching called the Institute of Social Anthropology. In 1946 the B.A.E. established the River Basin Surveys to supervise and conduct archaeological research in areas where dams were flooding many of the centers of prehistoric cultures within the U.S.

Beginning in the 1950s, the museum Department of Anthropology increasingly emphasized research, in addition to its traditional curatorial and exhibition duties. It also recognized its curatorial, and hence its research responsibilities for the anthropology of Asia, the Pacific, South America and Africa, and hired well-qualified specialists in those areas for the first time. In 1965 S. Dillon Ripley, as incoming Secretary of the Smithsonian, reformed the National Museum of Natural History1 by giving research a higher priority than caring for and exhibiting the collections (although the latter continued, and even improved). As part of this change, the Bureau of American Ethnology was eliminated, and its staff and important library amalgamated with those of the museum Department of Anthropology. The B.A.E. Archives (its sole collection responsibility) moved as well, and became the National Anthropological Archives with a correspondingly broadened mandate. The B.A.E. publication series was replaced by the new Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology (SCA). In 1975 Congress authorized the addition of the National Anthropological Film Center (now the Human Studies Film Archives) to the Smithsonian; in 1981, it became part of the Department of Anthropology.

At first, the amalgamated units were called the Office of Anthropology, with a higher status than ordinary departments in the museum. But positions and financing adequate to maintain this hierarchical position were not available, and the Office reverted to the Department level. Today, Anthropology is the largest of the seven scientific departments in the Museum of Natural History (Anthropology, Botany, Entomology, Invertebrate Zoology, Mineral Sciences, Paleobiology, Vertebrate Zoology).

In accordance with legislation passed by Congress in 1989, a Repatriation Office was established in the museum in 1991 and moved to the Department in 1993, in order to establish a close working relationship with the Department and to facilitate access to the Department's Native American collections and the associated documentation.

Smithsonian Anthropology has had a direct influence on the development of the field of anthropology. Members of the department, in conjunction with those at the Bureau of American Ethnology, founded the Anthropological Society of Washington in 1880, which in 1888 began publishing the American Anthropologist, which was taken over in 1899 by the new American Anthropological Association and became the leading professional journal of anthropology. After World War II, archaeological investigations in river basins along the Missouri, by the Bureau of American Ethnology and archaeologists in the museum department, set modern standards for conducting and documenting archaeological fieldwork. The field of anthropological conservation also was developed at the Smithsonian, and its approaches and methodologies are used today around the world.

At present, the Department has three curatorial Divisions: Ethnology (including linguistics), Archaeology, and Physical Anthropology. There are separate Divisions for the Handbook of North American Indians, the Archives (National Anthropological Archives and Human Studies Film Archives), and the Repatriation Office. The Department recognizes several special research and outreach programs within the curatorial divisions: Archaeobiology, Human Origins, Latin American Archaeology, Asian Cultural History, Arctic Studies, Paleoindian/Paleoecology, and American Indian Program.

Since 1846 the Department and its predecessor organizations have maintained a leadership role in research, the care of collections, and the dissemination of information to the scholarly and lay communities. Since the Institution's beginnings, Anthropology has broadened to include a global study of all aspects of human beings, from the earliest origins of the species up to the modern day. This expanded mandate pervades all aspects of anthropological research, collections, and outreach activities.

1 By this time, the Museum of History and Technology, later renamed the National Museum of American History, had become a separate bureau from the National Museum of Natural History.  [back]


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