ICHORA 2020, DAY 2: Hannah Turner, “Cataloging Culture…in an Ethnographic Museum”

Note: This presentation was part of a three-person panel entitled “Histories of Ordering, Classifying, and Connecting.”

Hannah Turner (University of British Columbia) starts a presentation on “Cataloguing Culture: Histories of Documentation in an Ethnographic Museum,” based on Turner’s recently-published book, Cataloguing Culture: Legacies of Colonialism in Museum Documentation (UBC Press, August 2020), by arguing that “the history of Anthropology” “is also a history of documentation.”

Turner walks us through the history of record-keeping in museums, from field guides and ledger books, all the way up to the modern database, drawing our attention to the common but problematic notion of these museum records as “privileged and neutral” sources of information. Directly linked to documentary colonialism and repatriation efforts with museums, the questions Turner asks are multiple: “Why is museum documentation almost always seen as authoritative? How is this authority created? How does record keeping enforce this authority? What are the ramifications of this?” Turner shows, for example, how the desiderata lists of the early collecting guides of the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History pre-classified the yet-to-be-discovered and collected materials, thereby constituting  an important tool in the process of knowledge creation.

Also important were the ledgers and the categories that recorded all the materials that arrived from across the globe. Turner then turns to focus on data creation in the ethnographic card catalog and the transition to computer-supported ethnographic data creation.

Slide of Smithsonian Museum, catalog card, from Hannah Turner’s presentation “Cataloguing Culture: Histories of Documentation in an Ethnographic Museum.”

Looking very closely at anthropology inventory worksheets, Turner’s work suggests that “the classification that was created in the early and mid-19th century played a role in establishing the standards for the modern and current database.” Today, this classification legacy directly impacts claims filed under NAGPRA guidelines, as these Museum records constitute the most authoritative reference points in the legal proceedings.


Dr. Sebastian Modrow

Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries

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