Museum Collections Drawers

P1110094At the end of the fall 2014 semester, Museum Anthropology students helped me return the Hopi Crop Survey items to their collections drawers.  The Museum of Anthropological Archaeology ethnobotanical collections are organized by plant types, and then by the general location where they originated (Southwest, South America, etc.).  Museum collections are commonly organized by these types of scientific classification schemes to allow easy comparison of the physical traits of objects.

When I started to plan the Museum Anthropology class project, one of the things I struggled with was how to divide the objects from nearly 90 accession numbers into manageable groups for the student teams.  After talking to Hopi community members about the collection, it became clear that making museum objects meaningful to Hopi people required emphasis on cultural context, rather than scientific classification.  A Hopi farmer and teacher suggested organizing the seeds by the Hopi Mesa from which they were collected.

As we returned the boxes of seeds to their collection drawers, I was struck by the importance of the tags in the on-line catalog. These tags allow a user to organization and view the collection in various ways including plant type, Hopi Mesa, and the village where the seeds were collected.  As a result, the cultural context, which is not evident from the collections drawers, is easily visible in the digital catalog.

Developing the Project and Whiting’s Collections

Although I knew that the Museum of Anthropological Archaeology had an extensive collection of Hopi plants, it was not until the spring of 2014 when I was preparing to use part of the ethnobotanical collections in the Museum Anthropology course that I realized how truly amazing it was.

When Alfred Whiting and Volney Jones interviewed Hopi households in October of 1935, they also kept a detailed inventory of the seeds they collected from individual families.  As a result, I could look at an ear of corn and know the name of the man who planted and harvested it 79 years before.  As a result, the interview notes could be used to connect the items in the Museum with the descendants of the people who harvested them.

As I started to research the Museum of Anthropological Archaeology Hopi plant collection, people on the other side of Ann Arbor started talking about another plant that Alfred Whiting collected.  In 1934 as a graduate student at the University of Michigan, Whiting brought back from Mexico the seeds of a variegated agave. These seeds were planted, and the agave had flourished for decades in the conservatory at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens. During the spring of 2014, it began to send up its flower stalk, which you can see pictures of here. After an agave blooms, it dies; but not before it produces numerous seeds and usually “pups,” which are clones of the parent plant. Throughout the summer, as this agave received national media attention, I enjoyed the serendipity of reading the field notes from Whiting’s 1935 Hopi project as his 80 year old Mexican agave prepared to flower and create a new generation of agave.

For updates on the Whiting’s agave from the University of Michigan’ Matthaei Botanical Gardens.