Undergraduate Research

Elf Zimmerman '23

OUR Featured Researcher: Elf Zimmerman '23

Elf Zimmerman
Photo credit: Jacob Strauss

Elf Zimmerman (they/them) is an Archaeological Studies major conducting mentored research under Professor Amy Margaris. Their project is titled “Plains Native American Beaded Items in the Allen Memorial Art Museum". 

Please describe your project: 

I am researching the Plains beaded items in the Allen’s collection to identify what they are and what tribes they may have come from. Several of them are incorrectly labeled, and there is no documentation on how or where they were collected, and how they came to be at Oberlin College. Given that they are from the late 19th/early 20th century, even if we don’t know their exact provenance, it is very likely that these items were taken unethically. Museums with these items have an obligation to help address the historical wrongs done to Native communities by returning agency over their material culture either through repatriation or collaborative work within museums. The primary goal of this research is to do the baseline required to be able to reconnect these items with their source communities, which will hopefully lead to collaboration or repatriation of the items in the future.

A brief summary (the elevator speech) of your research project: 

I’m researching the Plains Native American items in the Allen because they probably shouldn’t be there in the first place, but there’s so little known about them that we don’t even know where they should be returned to. I am doing the work needed to figure out what they are and where they might be from, as well as hopefully beginning to reach out to potential source communities about repatriation or collaboration. 

Why is your research important? 

Museums have been complicit if not active in the genocide of Native American peoples by taking their material culture and using it to reinforce stereotypes of “savage Indians” and peoples “frozen in time”. There has been a shift within museums towards acknowledging this and taking measures to decolonize and address past wrongs, both as required by NAGPRA and beyond. I am doing this work for the Allen because their collection is so small and they don’t have the staff or resources to make significant progress on it themselves.

What does the process of doing your research look like?   

The majority of my research is done in the library, looking at books and scholarly articles to learn about Plains beadwork and material culture. Another important aspect is looking at images of similar items in other collections, trying to find visual similarities that will help me identify what tribe an item may have come from. The most exciting part is getting to look at the items in person in the Print Study Room, which gives me valuable insights on materials and construction methods, as well as evidence of their use.

What knowledge has your research contributed to your field?

Many small museums like the Allen have not had the resources to begin this work with their collections yet, so we are very much at the forefront of that movement. I’m hoping that maybe we can be an example for how small college art museums can proceed with this sort of work.

How did you get involved in research? What drove you to want to seek out research experiences in college?

This kind of work is something I’ve been passionate about since I first learned about it in my first semester at Oberlin. I have taken a variety of classes, as well as a Winter Term group project and a summer internship, relating to this topic over the years. What specifically inspired this research was a project I did for a class last year, in which I was doing the same work but focusing on just one of the items within the collection.

What is your favorite aspect of the research process?

The biggest thing that keeps me motivated and excited about the work I’m doing is how important it is. Museums have an obligation to do this kind of work, and I am honored to be the one who gets to do it and help the Allen take this step. I know it may not happen until after I’ve graduated, but I am so looking forward to reconnecting these items with their people.

How has working with your mentor impacted the development of your research project? How has it impacted you as a researcher?

Working with my mentor has been fantastic! She’s the one who first introduced me to this work and gave me the resources to start learning about Native American ethnographic items in museums. She reminds me to not lose sight of the big picture and the whole reason why I’m doing this. We are both learning as we go, and this collaborative process is so fun to be able to collaborate and learn together.

How has the research you’ve conducted contributed to your professional or academic development?

This project really feels like the culmination of everything I’ve been working towards during my time at Oberlin. I am hoping to have a career working with collections, maybe even continuing to do this kind of work, and this project is providing me with valuable experience in the field and potential networking connections.

What advice would you give to a younger student wanting to get involved in research in your field?

I’m sure people hear this all the time, but if you’re interested in something, go to the professor’s office hours and ask about it. Also, take advantage of programming at the Allen; they’re there as a resource for students and are happy to talk if you’re interested in museum work. There is so much important work still to be done in museums, and a lot of people here at Oberlin who want to help make that work happen.