Monday, December 14, 2015

SIMA Faculty Fellow Program: SIMA as a Teaching Model for Engaging University Collections

Guest post by Jen Shannon (Curator & Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at the University of Colorado-Boulder)

During the summer of 2015, Bob Preucel and I were the inaugural Faculty Fellows for the well-established Smithsonian Summer Institute for Museum Anthropology (SIMA), hosted by the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in Washington, DC. Bob is Director of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology and Professor of Anthropology at Brown University, and I am a Curator and Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at the University of Colorado-Boulder and the CU Museum of Natural History. We both teach courses in anthropology and work in campus museums.

SIMA up until this point had been focused on training graduate students to view anthropology collections as a site for theoretically engaged research. The Faculty Fellowship focuses on “teaching the teachers,” to help disseminate the SIMA model for teaching collections research. Our experience began with an introduction to the students and a tour with them of the NMNH’s vast collections. 

Photo: Tour of anthropology collections with Jake Homiak at the National Museum of Natural History.

Photo: Tour of collections; pictured here are wampum belts, including one associated with the “Delawares [or Lenape] joining the five nations of Iroquois” (E248744, wider purple belt near the back of the drawer).

At the close of SIMA this past summer, I was asked to give a presentation about what I learned through this new faculty fellowship. The title of my presentation was “SIMA as a Teaching Model for Engaging University Collections.” My talk began with “Confessions of a Non-Object Centered Curator.” My work to date had involved curating exhibits with Native communities, conducting NAGPRA consultations, and connecting communities to collections in various other ways (such as online interactive websites, collections visits, etc). The focus of my work had not been the objects themselves, but rather providing access to them and facilitating relationships between communities and collections.

So, while objects were central to my relations with communities, and I had worked with objects in exhibition development, they were not central to my research inquiry. After a NAGPRA consultation with Mandan Hidatsa Arikara (MHA) Nation community members, I asked if there was anything more they wanted to learn or have us research about the MHA items housed in our museum in Colorado. They asked us to conduct an oral history video project about the collection donor. This was an exciting opportunity, and we began a video documentary project—but it also moved us away from researching the collection itself. On one of my visits to the community, I brought a big binder filled with photos of all the MHA items we housed in our museum. As we were flipping through the pages, a community member asked me about an item – and I didn’t know what it was or what it was used for. I felt unprepared, and irresponsible, and it highlighted a particular blind spot in my training and practice. Once I identified it, I saw it in other areas of my work as well. For instance, I teach ANTH 7300 Research Methods in Cultural Anthropology to graduate students in our Anthropology department. I had incorporated a unit on archives, but there was no unit on collections research (talk about a blind spot!).

The SIMA Faculty Fellowship seemed ideal to address this blind spot—to provide a place and time away from my institution to reorient my focus on collections, and to begin reconsidering the role of collections in my research and community collaborations. This was an opportunity to – as SIMA puts it – make the collections, and objects, the site of research. And I could see this reorientation happening in the students as well over the course of the four week program.

The teaching model of SIMA places objects first in the research process, and each curriculum unit is accompanied by “object lessons” in which instructors use items from the vast anthropology collections at the National Museum of Natural History. Candace Greene exhorted students to “sit with the object,” to really spend time with it. 

Photo: A Pomo feathered basket (E203488) I encountered in the NMNH collections that I enjoyed sitting with, though briefly. Students can take hours, days, even weeks with any particular object depending on the needs of their research.

We often have a look at an object and then, as was my predilection as well, jump straight to the documentation and archives, seeking context – and text. Something we are more comfortable with reading, reviewing, understanding. But we learn from Candace and other instructors just what an extraordinary amount there is to read from the object itself – from its materials, to its use wear, its design and shape, its smell, and the traces of the hand of its maker. We learn to be skeptical of associated documentation and to learn how to critique the reliability of the information at hand. We learn how to situate this object into broader historical and social contexts, and into broader questions of theory in anthropology – like gendered practice, relations of power, economic changes over time, etc. (click here for a list of the 2015 SIMA students’ paper topics).

During the fellowship I had the opportunity to mentor students in their research process and to observe as they engaged with objects in the collections. The fellowship was also a rare opportunity to see other faculty teaching in action, as well as to learn a well-honed model for collections research. Candace and Josh Bell from the NMNH, along with visiting professors Marit Munson, Jason Baird Jackson, and Cara Krmpotich were the instructors for this year’s cohort, sharing their research and teaching with objects. In addition, former SIMA student Adrian Van Allen gave a lesson on photographing objects with simple tools like a camera phone, cardboard box and desk lamp!

Photo: Jason Baird Jackson teaching a lesson using a collection of Cherokee, Seminole, and Creek ball sticks.

Photo: Joshua Bell using collections from the 1928 USDA Sugarcane Expedition to New Guinea to discuss his research. 

Photo: Adrian Van Allen demonstrating how to take images of objects with common office items.

Photo: Cara Krmpotich and students viewed a beaded shoulder bag and maple sugar-filled duck bills during a lesson about “Why Objects Matter to Source Communities” in which she discussed her work with Anishnaabe and Cree communities.

As faculty fellows, we had the wonderful chance to poke around in collections, conduct some of our own research in archives and collections, get together with colleagues in DC, and form new connections with prominent people in our field. SIMA also provides faculty fellows an opportunity to workshop a lesson with objects, putting into practice what we are learning. 

Photo: Accompanying Bob as we review collections of interest to his research and for his SIMA lesson.

Photo: Candace snapped a photo of me with these famous dogs – they are part of the historical “Happy Eskimo” exhibit that Bill Fitzhugh writes about in his 1997 essay, “Ambassadors in Sealskins: Exhibiting Eskimos at the Smithsonian,” which I reference in my Introduction to Museum Anthropology course.

Photo: Candace showing us a shirt attributed to the Sioux (E403344A) that may be of interest to the community with whom I work.

Photo: Learning from Candace how to tell the difference between porcupine quill and plant fiber. (For more information, see her article in American Indian Art Magazine’s 2015 issue, “The Use of Plant Fibers in Plains Indian Embroidery.”)

Photo: Bob begins his lesson with a presentation, then later moves on to discuss with objects from the collection. The 2015 SIMA cohort seated around the table are Marissa Shaver (University of Texas San Antonio), Kaitlin Brown (University of California Santa Barbara), Amanda Thompson (Bard Graduate Center), Lee Bloch (University of Virginia), Ana Karina de Morais (University of California Santa Cruz), Brittany Sheldon (Indiana University), Mikael Muehlbauer (Columbia University), Hilary Symes (Temple University), Erin Freedman (Bard Graduate Center), Wahsontiio Cross (Carleton University), and Sarah Richardson (George Washington University).

Photo: Bob and students during a lesson he developed based on his work with the Tlingit.

I witnessed an amazing transformation from one week to the next as each new educator came in and asked students to articulate their research projects. It was a delight to see students hone their questions, research design, and theoretical approach to the materials over time. The students’ presentations at the close of SIMA were outstanding; it was a pleasure to see how far they had come in such a short time.

Photo: SIMA student Kaitlin Brown taking a closer look with equipment in the conservation lab.

Photo: Kaitlin Brown presenting her research at the SIMA symposium in the final week of the program.

I believe SIMA-like programs, run by faculty fellows at their own institutions, can engage students in university museum collections which are often used by outside researchers but less so by students. Through teaching SIMA-like classes we can encourage university faculty to move beyond viewing the university museum as simply a source for borrowed objects for class, and we can show students that a museum has more potential for learning than just earning extra credit for visiting an exhibit. By engaging the anthropology collections as a site for research, students can learn skills in primary research, help increase documentation of collections, and highlight the value and relevance of the museum to the wider campus and its administration.

Based on my SIMA experience, I created a syllabus and lesson plans for a class I taught this semester: ANTH 4470/5470, MUSM 5912 Practicum: Collections Research in Cultural Anthropology. This course is now a natural endpoint to a series of courses I teach in both museum studies and anthropology, including the ethnographic methods course mentioned above, ANTH 4045/5045 MUSM 5045 Introduction to Museum Anthropology, and ANTH 5840 Curating Cultural Anthropology.

Today, as the semester and the practicum come to a close, I am pleased to say the course was a success. This past week my students gave public presentations of their work to museum faculty, staff and students. For their course, they had to choose how they would share their research with the public: a curator’s talk and publishable research paper, an online exhibit, or a physical exhibit in our Anthropology: What in the World? section of our Anthropology Hall. Student projects include a research paper on Hupa, Yurok and Karuk basket hats and their communication of womanhood; the symbolism, materials and techniques represented in Sioux and Cheyenne “possibles” bags; agency and collecting encounters between Bougainvilleans and soldiers in the Pacific Islands in the World War II ear; and, through analysis of Pitjintajara objects of different size, the role of models and objects of play in learning. 

Photo: Practicum class students Isabella Vinsonhaler, Kevin Mealy, Jesse Dutton-Kenny, and Kerrie Iyoob during a close looking/drawing exercise.

Through this process, we have discovered and discussed items we didn’t even know we had in our collection, such as the treasure trove of documentation and letters from a World War II era collector/soldier. This research is publicly demonstrating the diversity of our collections, allowing me to curate a broader range of items in our museum, and, most important – it is allowing students to follow their passion in choosing objects and to develop independent research skills through a semester-long mentoring process.

This semester’s practicum has broadened our engagement with our anthropology collections, which to date had focused mainly on Southwest and Plains items. In addition, a student in this semester’s Practicum course preselected objects she thought undergraduate students might be interested in researching as part of other anthropology courses. They include a “Mao hat” from China, an Indonesian crossbow, a Navajo third phase chief’s blanket, a Tilingit copper, a pipe and pipe bag given to a settler in early Colorado history by Ute Chief Ouray in 1878 or 1879, sashes, dolls and more. I look forward to teaching the practicum again in the future.

In these many ways, the research methods and legacy of SIMA continues half way across the country. And it can be maintained in any university that has an anthropology collection, a willing instructor, and students who are interested in doing primary research. I was delighted to be a part of this new initiative at SIMA, and I would encourage other faculty members in institutions with anthropology collections to consider applying for the program.

Many thanks to Candace Greene and the SIMA program for this opportunity, to Fred Reuss and the students and the interns for all their hard work (and for accommodating a lurking faculty member in their midst!). You can find out more about the Faculty Fellowship program here:

For a Faculty Fellowship, applications for summer 2016 are now in and under consideration. Applications for summer 2017 will be accepted throughout the year, with selections finalized in December 2016.

For Graduate Students, MARCH 1, 2016 is the deadline for applications to SIMA.

To prepare your proposal, you can search the NMNH anthropology collections database online at

Candace Greene runs SIMA and is extremely helpful; if you’d like to discuss your application ahead of time, you can email her at
I am also happy to answer any questions or share my syllabi should you be interested; you can reach me at

SIMA is supported by the Cultural Anthropology program of the National Science Foundation under grant BCS1424029.

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