Reunifying Oberlin’s Natural History Collection

August 29, 2017

Hillary Hempstead

Associate Professor of Anthropology Amy Margaris
Associate Professor of Anthropology Amy Margaris ’96 sits amid objects in a 36-piece Arctic collection that she’s leading the effort to digitize.
Photo credit: Jennifer Manna

Inside King Hall, Associate Professor of Anthropology Amy Margaris ’96 sifts through bins of plastic sleeves. In each is a carefully preserved object from the department’s ethnographic collection. Margaris gingerly holds a colorfully threaded sack made from the pericardium—the membrane that surrounds the heart—of an animal. The once pliable bag, Margaris explains, used to flex and bend to hold whatever was placed inside.

Alongside the delicate bag are other objects, including a bentwood cedar box, whose purpose was likely for berry collecting, and an oblong wooden bowl whose dark stains suggest it was a vessel for holding meat.

These are just three items of 36 in Oberlin’s Arctic collection, an assemblage of ethnographic items that came to the college in 1889 as part of a collection exchange with the Smithsonian Institution (at that time called the United States National Museum). Each of the pieces in the collection was obtained by a who’s who of 19th century Smithsonian naturalists who travelled to various Native communities in Alaska and eastern Canada to meet Yup’ik, Inuit, and Innu peoples.

“Their sister objects are still at the Smithsonian in a famed collection,” Margaris says.

And while this collection is noteworthy, it is not the only impressive collection that exists on campus. It’s just one of many that Margaris has dubbed the college’s “dangling collections”— objects and specimens spread across various campus buildings that at one time had a home in the college’s natural history museum. You may even walk past artifacts from the former museum without even realizing it. Those bird specimens you see in the hallways of the Science Center? Part of the museum. The fossils on the fourth floor of the Carnegie Building? Those too were once in the museum.

An object in Oberlin College's Arctic collection
Objects in Oberlin's Arctic collection were once part of the Smithsonian Institution and still possess their handwritten tags. Photo by Jennifer Manna.

So why do we have these collections? And what happened to the museum?

In the 19th century, there was a campus museum called the Oberlin College Museum, explains Margaris. It began as a small-scale natural history “cabinet” and was administered by Albert Wright, a professor of geology. Wright gathered the bulk of the early items from Northeast Ohio and from trips to Jamaica in 1863, to the West in 1868, and to upstate New York in 1869. All of the items were kept in what was termed the “College Cabinet.” (Collections of natural history specimens and curiosities were called “cabinets” in the 18th and early 19th centuries.)

Contributions from Oberlin alumni, many doing missionary work across the globe, helped the collection expand rapidly. In 1875, the collections were moved to Cabinet Hall, a structure built specifically for exhibition and recitation space. The building caught fire three times but, miraculously, no specimens were damaged. The collections continued to grow, and the College Cabinet was eventually termed a “museum,” as was the fashion in the 1880s.

The collections were moved to various locations after that, including to a “fireproof” building at Spear Library on Tappan Square. When the collections outgrew the space in the library, there were attempts to fund the museum and erect a dedicated building to house the collections, but plans never came to fruition.

“Many schools at the time were building these kinds of collections,” says Margaris. “But like at a lot of colleges, the Oberlin museum eventually faded away. As the sciences changed and methods of inquiry changed, they were seen as out of date and as taking up too much space. Those collections that were retained were dispersed among departments. The taxidermied bird specimens went to biology, the mineralogical specimens went to geology, and anthropology received the ethnological objects.”

Margaris along with other faculty and staff members on campus have embarked upon an effort to bring these objects to the forefront and assemble them—at least digitally—into a “Cabinet 2.0.” While this effort actually began in the early 2000s when Margaris’ advisor, Professor of Anthropology Linda Grimm, and Albert Borroni ’85 the director of Oberlin Center for Technologically Enhanced Teaching (OCTET) digitized the Ethnographic Collection, there has been a renewed interest in digitization. Now, with Margaris’ students working on the initiative, this project has spanned decades.

Digitizing objects from the long-dispersed collections presents numerous opportunities. “We not only make it possible for researchers at Oberlin and beyond to find and use our collections in research, we can also learn more about what we have,” says Digital Initiatives Librarian Megan Mitchell. “We’ve been contacted by scholars abroad who have used our digital collections and provided us with additional information about objects. There’s a lot of potential for making connections with people, places, and things.”

Professor of Geology Karla Hubbard is one such faculty member who has been part of the digital initiative. Hubbard is working to digitize the thousands of objects in the paleontology collection of the former Oberlin College Museum.

“It is a very slow and careful process,” says Hubbard. “The collection has been languishing without serious curatorial attention for a very long time, so as we work on digitizing the specimens, we also update the information associated with each [object]. The database we create will be available to students for research projects and laboratory exercises, as well as something available to the global research community interested in fossil specimens from all over the world.”

As for the 36-piece Arctic collection, the Department of Anthropology and Mudd Center library staff plan to work with a student research assistant in this fall to incorporate the objects into the online database in the Oberlin College Ethnographic Collection, a hub for Oberlin’s many ethnological materials that were once housed in the former museum.

Moving these objects online not only allows for access to the collections by students and researchers, but it also give access to those people whose ancestors created the objects.

“These objects are cultural treasures,” says Margaris. “What we see happening more and more is Native people are visiting collections such as this as a way to learn old techniques and gather new knowledge. They’re not repatriating the objects. Instead, they’re repatriating the associated knowledge so that young people can learn about their ancestors and how they lived and carry that knowledge forward into the future.”

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