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.


Reflections: Third Mesa Corn (2014)

This semester has been a whirlwind of learning experiences. As a group, we came to love the seeds and preserved crops of the Hopi plant collection. The University of Michigan is lucky to have such an amazing collection with the information along with it. We gained much higher levels of respect not only towards the Hopi people that we were so honored to work with, but even for the items in the collection, as well as their counterparts still being used at Hopi today. The Hopi farmers we spoke with were so proud to teach us of the things they do that it made us (well, me at least!) really come back to the collection and understand the importance of the items. Corn is life for the Hopi people and the collection we have is not static. It’s still alive. For example, our Purple Sunflower seeds are still being used at Hopi today for dyes!

Moving forward, I foresee museums becoming even more aware of the things community members can teach them about their collections; and I believe we will see more collaboration between the two. As we learned, people do care about the “stuff” in museums.

Written by Emily Wolfe

Reflections: Third Mesa Beans (2014)

In October, we wrote a blog post in response to the notes collected by Whiting, Jones, and Nequatewa, noting a particular curiosity in the Pink and White Cow Bean and its description, “just another bean.” Now that we have finished our project and had the privilege get to know the community from which this bean came, we are reflecting on our comments.  Living in a capitalist society where objects find their value as commodities, we approached the collection with a dually shaped perception: beans are simply food and this is “just another bean.” The 1935 interview notes for Third Mesa were also extremely sparse and did not give us enough information to appreciate the true salience of this collection of Hopi seeds.  We found ourselves adopting a dehumanized view of what later became obvious as deeply human objects.

After our conversations with Hopi community members, we now cringe at the ‘just another bean” comment.  Our initial response highlights the dangers of anthropological interpretation when it comes to museum collections. We have experienced firsthand how a historically ethnocentric orientation towards meaning has divorced culturally salient objects from the people they once belonged to, and we understand the importance of community voices in accurately and responsibly presenting these items to outsiders. Today, museums and anthropologists are beginning to understand the importance of differing perspectives on objects in museum collections. To us, informed by the voices of the Hopi community, each plant in the collection has transformed from ‘just another bean’ into something much more — a child of the Hopi community.

Reflections: Second Mesa Corn (2014)

Like any course at U of M, this class challenged us to develop new ways of thinking and critique our previous conceptions about museums and cultural objects. Unlike other courses, this class provided us with an opportunity to communicate and collaborate with Hopi farmers from the source community. By interacting directly with Hopi community members, we were able to apply the theoretical knowledge from readings and class discussion. We learned that knowledge from academic texts is not the only authority on an object. By the end of this course our team was all very eager to learn more. However, we had to balance this with the notion of that some information must stay confidential. We gained an understanding of how museums and native communities negotiate matters of knowledge and power.

We think that many people in today’s society focus on ways to make things happen faster and easier, so it was refreshing to see perspectives on life from Hopi community members.  The Hopi men from Second Mesa that we spoke to emphasized that the way they live now is the way that Hopi will live forever.  While it is certainly nice to have things come along in an effortless way, the Hopi community members help us see how valuable it is to keep traditional views, work hard, and appreciate what you have.

Reflections: Second Mesa Beans (2014)

The semester of working on this project has taught us quite a bit. We have learned there is now a big push for museums and anthropologists to work with source communities in order to interpret and present collections in a respectful and accurate way. Along with these new partnerships came a change in the source of expertise. Nowadays, the museum/anthropologist is not always the only authority on the objects as source communities are contributing as well.

This is a step in the correct direction based on our experience talking with Hopi farmers. If we had not communicated with the Hopi community, our observations about the seeds would probably have been based on their functions instead of on their importance to the Hopi way of life.

These changes also help ensure that the only knowledge made public is knowledge that the community is comfortable sharing. For example, the community members did not wish to share the ceremonial meanings and rituals of certain plants with people outside of Hopi. Respecting this boundary is a major change from the old way of thinking that knowledge should be shared freely.

Lastly and most importantly, we would like to express our gratitude for the opportunity to work on such an educational and intriguing project.


Reflections: First Mesa Team (2014)

We learned that communication between two parties evolves much like everything else throughout a period of time. In the past, most museums and anthropologists provided information about the people they wanted to depict.  Thus, there was not much of a dialogue between these two parties.  Now anthropologists engage in dialogues with source communities, a practice that we also followed in our own work with the Hopi plant collections here at the university.  If it weren’t for our communications with the Hopi people through video conferencing and the field notes, we would have just seen the collection from an objective point of view rather than having community knowledge to support our own observations about the seeds. When we introduced our corn samples to the Hopi farmer and a classroom of Hopi 3rd graders, their reactions and interpretations helped us to understand what this corn meant to them and the many ways it is used in their culture. Each corn type had its own meaning and use. They were not simply beautiful ears of corn; these crops were their children.  We would never have acquired this understanding of cultural significance tied to these collections if we had not had this dialogue with the source community.

-Written collaboratively by the First Mesa Team

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.

Conversations: Third Mesa Corn (2014)

Written by Rachel Bissonnette

Pahana corn, the Hopi term for “white man’s corn”, is easily purchased year-round at the grocery store. Most Americans treat the classic yellow crop as a plain food. At Hopi, crops are not just food; they are the children of the farmers. A meaningful message from our group’s videoconference with two Hopi farmers was the love they devote to farming. Hopi farmers cherish the life provided by their crops. Farmers at Hopi utilize traditions handed down to them from their relatives to preserve not only their breed of crops, but also the Hopi way of life.

One of the farmers explained that sharing crops, like sharing knowledge, has helped to support the Hopi farming community. He said multiple times throughout our conversation, without their crops, Hopi would have nothing. The resounding lesson is that Hopi crops are priceless.

The pricelessness of crops has all sorts of effects on sharing in Hopi society.  A fact I found interesting is that sometimes Hopi pay for favors with crops or seeds.

A new way Hopi are sharing their crops is through a farmer’s market established by the Hopi Food Coop. Both farmers chuckled that of many the farmers participating in the farmer’s market have difficulties pricing their crops because they have never sold them before.

Hopefully the sharing of information about the University of Michigan Hopi plant collection will help in the efforts to sustain Hopi farming for generations to come.

Conversation: Third Mesa Beans (2014)

written by Taeler Varner

Video conferencing with Hopi farmers truly brought a new perspective to Whiting and Jones’ seed collection. I was initially worried that video conferencing would feel impersonal, but instead we felt a personal connection with the farmers we spoke to, and learning about the current use of the seeds truly brought the collection to life. One of the farmers even showed us a squash he had grown, making it easy to view the collection as more than just a museum archive. The great respect for plants and the earth shared by the Hopi community is influential and caused each of us to reflect on the value we place on farming.

Hearing the farmers say the names of the crops in their language, hearing the importance of oral tradition, and listening to how Hopi beliefs shape farming practices brought a greater meaning to the value of farming. It is sad that some of the seeds in our collection are no longer available to the Hopi community. I am hopeful that the online catalog we are working to create will help preserve the tradition of such seeds and be of use to Hopi farmers.

Since we spent so much time with the Whiting and Jones’ interviews I naturally juxtaposed their interviews with our experience. I wonder if they had a similar experience interviewing the Hopi farmers. Was the Hopi community’s influential perspective on farming part of their inspiration for creating the seed collection?

Conversations: First Mesa (2014)

Our team had the great pleasure of talking to a Hopi farmer from First Mesa during this past week.  He was a vital resource for us as we expanded our knowledge of the Hopi people’s farming practices and communal relationships.  The three of us were immediately struck by the farmer’s passion for farming.  He emphasized how important the cultivation of traditional crops is to the Hopi community.  Farming can sometimes be a difficult way of life, but it helps to connect the Hopi people to their traditions and identities.  Overall, the three of us were pleasantly surprised about how much information this farmer was willing to share with us.  Probably the most important thing that we learned about the Hopi people was the importance of community and clan ties.  Everyone shares their seeds and harvest with each other, and if someone has a difficult year, the community will support their brethren by giving them food and seeds for the next growing season.  Finally, we asked the First Mesa farmer about the online catalog.  He believes that it will be useful to future generations, and he seemed happy that the crop information collected by Whiting, Jones, and Nequatewa was being digitized.

Written by Laura from the First Mesa Team