History Slam Episode 155: Cataloguing Culture

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By Sean Graham

The Smithsonian Institute bills itself as “the world’s largest museum, education, and research complex.” In an average year, 22 million people visit the 19 Smithsonian museums, galleries, and gardens. The portfolio even includes the National Zoo. These sites can make for great days exploring the history of the United States, but it’s likely that not many visitors ask about how the Institute collects artifacts. And even fewer think about how the information is cataloged and whether that influences the way in which exhibits are presented.

Fortunately, there is Cataloguing Culture: Legacies of Colonialism in Museum Documentation, a new book by Hannah Turner that explores how categories were used in sorting material culture and the way in which the Smithsonian’s process came to be the standard in national collecting organizations. In doing so, the Institution imposed a colonial structure of classifying, organizing, and naming the millions of artifacts from Indigenous peoples in its collection. As a result, incorrect classifications and terminology made its way into its database and, because of the Institution’s status, that colonial process was replicated in other influential museums.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Professor Turner about the book. We discuss the Smithsonian’s collection process, its relationships with the communities from which it took objects, and how its database was built. We also chat about the importance of terminology, the repatriation of objects from the collection, and how museum guests benefit from learning about the museum’s history.

Sean Graham is a historian with Parks Canada, an Adjunct Professor at Carleton University, and a contributing editor with Activehistory.ca

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