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Detail of Gros Ventre Moccasins (NMNH catalog no. E391185)
Traditional Care

Traditional Care of Anthropology Collections
Collections care at the National Museum of Natural History emphasizes the protection and preservation of the items for which the museum is responsible. The National Museum of Natural History recognizes that Native Americans and other peoples from throughout the world have their own traditional perspectives regarding how cultural objects should be stored, handled and cared for, and the museum is receptive to integrating these approaches in caring for the collections. Traditional care approaches that do not conflict with museum policies can be merged with conventional collections practices to achieve both state of the art and traditional standards.

Examining artifacts at the Museum Support Center in Suitland, MD

David Simon, Sr., Rebecca Napoleon and Bosco Olsen from Hooper Bay, Alaska, examining artifacts at the Museum Support Center in Suitland, MD. 2002, photo by Repatriation Office Staff, National Museum of Natural History
Some traditional care requests do not conflict greatly with established museum curation policy. For some objects, traditional care requests have been as simple as placing the object in a specific position or facing it toward a specific direction. In other cases, tribal representatives have collaborated with conservators and Repatriation Office staff to design and build special mounts and boxes to house sacred objects, such as the box made for a Cheyenne buffalo skull. Read about the Buffalo Skull Project to learn more about this traditional care project.

Some cultural items are viewed by the cultures that created them as living entities that need feeding, water and air and therefore these objects may require occasional offerings. However, placing food, pollen, corn meal, tobacco, roots, or other organic material offerings on or near an object can pose as problems for preservation of collections as they may contain or attract insects and other pests that can damage the objects. Such inadvertent infestations can jeopardize adjacent items and threaten all of the museums collections. A number of accommodations can be explored in order to allow for the culturally sensitive care of the object while still maintaining the safety and security of the collections.

Traditional care may also extend to the treatment of human remains. As part of a consultation visit, tribal members may request that the remains be placed in a separate room in order to perform ceremonies for the benefit of these individuals. Offerings or gifts may also be made for the benefit of these ancestors. Food, water and healing plants are examples of gifts that have been placed with the remains. Native communities have also made requests that the remains be placed so that they are oriented in a certain direction or have provided cloth of a specific color with which to cover them.

Tribes that, for whatever reason, are unable or unwilling to receive remains of individuals to whom they have been found to be culturally affiliated have the authority to request that the museum accommodate their desires regarding the treatment of the remains until the tribe chooses an alternate disposition. For more information, please see the Anthropology Department's Traditional Care Policy Statement (pdf file).

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