This is the collection (and my participation in its revision and digitization) that really got me interested in the questions about digitization that then led me to doing this fellowship project -and now this collection is finally online!
It is not huge compared to international standards (about 60.000 objects), but it is the most important ethnographic collection in Norway and quite an early one.
The Ethnographic Collection of the Museum of Cultural History (Kulturhistorisk museum, KHM) was founded as part of the University of Oslo in 1854 at a time when Norway was rediscovering and inventing its national identity after centuries under Danish rule. The first objects thus included “ethnographic left overs” from Danish museums and items representing Norwegian peasant culture and northern Sami culture. With time most of the Norwegian and Sami objects were transferred to the Folk Museum (Norsk folkemuseum), and the Egyptian and European antiquities became an independent collection within KHM (then called Historic Museum). Today the strength of the Ethnographic Collection are the collections from Artic regions, East-Africa, Japan, Tibet, Melanesia and Polynesia. My personal favorite is the little collection from Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and my next project will hopefully be to document that collection better.
So far the language of navigation of Etnobasen is Norwegian only, but one can navigate by using this map view.
Or search by place names in the general search (“Søk”) above the map. In Norwegian one can also search by theme, material, place and people.
For my friends in Alaska this search takes you directly to the 921 objects thought to be from your corner of the States.
The process of revising the collection is far from over, so many objects do not have photos, some have the wrong photos, wrong origin and the contextual information about the objects leaves much to be desired. Unfortunately, time and money are also important issues for museums in one of the world’s richest countries.
Yet hopefully this is a beginning of a new life for this quite little known collection.
All things must come to an end and so did my fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution. Suddenly I’m back home in Oslo again, and Alaska and DC seem as far away as the little island in the Pacific where I normally go on fieldwork.
The Smithsonian Fellowship in Museum Practice has been such a wonderful opportunity. I’ve been allowed to see this enormous institution from the inside and to do exactly the project I wanted to. And people I met were so welcoming and willing to use of their time to help me with my project. I don’t know how to thank you enough, but my most sincere thanks to all of you.
Now I’m writing up my Smithsonian experience and will use it in my work for making museum collections more useful. The results and updates will be posted here.
And for people who might want to apply for this fellowship you find the necessary information about it from the SCEMS (Smithsonian Center of Education and Museum Studies) here.
Wednesday I gave a little talk in the Department of Anhtropology in the NMNH, trying to explain why I’m doing this fellowship. I like the long titles of the accounts of early voyages of discovery, which often have every place visited and thing seen in the very title of the account -so therefore such a clumsy title. As for the content I started by showing the audience part of the documentary “Mana Rapa Nui!” (2010) and explained how being a Norwegian anthropologist on Rapa Nui got me involved in producing an exhibition on an earlier Norwegian expedition to the island. That in turn confronted me with questions about Rapanui museum collections abroad (especially in Norway), their managament and accessability. And from there the way to thinking about the possibilities of digitization can be short, but that was only the beginning of this project. Getting collections online can be called digitization, but how can digitization make collections more useful? I’ll talk about that in the next talk, Monday.
When the old massive stone building of the National Museum of Natural History trembled over my head in the earth quake last week and sounded as if it would collapse my first thoughts went far away from all the irreplaceable cultural treasures under its roof. And even when hearing that some objects unfortunately did get dammaged the reaction was still that some things are more important than things, even for museum lovers.
Today I visited the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage which is one of the three partner institutions in the Recovering Voices Program (with NMNH and NMAI). Housed in an ultramodern steel and glass office building at L’Enfant Plaza the outer appearance might not look very “folk”, but then what is folklife? Where I come from most folks’ associations will be of folkdance, folkcostumes, folkmuseums and something slightly odd and boring (says I who love all that). However, this Center’s mission is to study and promote all contemporary grassroot cultures both in the States and internationally. Inside the office the landscape is more colorful than the outer look of the office building, with baskets, clay pots, figurines etc all over the place, but turns out to be gifts from happy participants in the Folklife Festival that the Center organizes on the Mall every July. This year the program featured Columbia, Rhythm & Blues and the Peace Corps. The festival is probably what most people associate with the Center, but it is also popular for its Folkways Recordings productions that are available on CDs, podcasts and even cassettes. And I think cassettes might not be so backward as it sounds like, because when the goal is to diffuse something to the widest audience possible it is wise to use as many channels as possible –even those on the other side of the digital divide. The Center also produces books, exhibitions, documentaries, seminars and educational tools –like a guide on how to interview your own family members. The Folklife Center is also very much about research and for instance this year’s festival was preceeded by three years of ethnographic research in Columbia to determine what Columbians consider to be their contemporary culture. It was a very nice visit, but I forgot to ask how “folk” is the habit of Washingtonian business women walking to work in conservative dress and plastic sandals (for then to change to pumps in the office)? That’s one of the local habits that have intrigued me the most here and though I like it it still jumps to my eye.
I found this little post from the Smithsonian Collections Blog quite refreshing. It is written by a colleague interning at the Smithsonian Gardens (not in the gardens I hope, as the weather is still melting hot) and it adresses an important issue for collection databases.
Smithsonian Collections Blog: I call it Pop, You call it Soda.
To find something and make something findable is easier when the online user and the people behind the screen agree upon what objects are called. Sounds easy, but even the most everyday “thing” (and maybe especially those objects we use all the time) can have different names and spellings in the same language.
The challenge is naturally multiplied by every additional language of a database and can be complicated by the cultural politcs of who defines what.
Is tagging an answer?
And speking of the sun, turns out also the Smithsonian is now opening up for letting visitors tag in their collections databases🙂
Because of the terrible terror events and the loss of so many young lives in my little country it has been difficult to focus on my fellowship project this last week. Trying to look forward, even though it is early for that, I’ve been asking myself what the roles of museums should be in such processes of national healing.
Like many my instant reaction was to check via social fora that my friends were ok and to let out some of the feelings one wanted to scream out on the bus or whereever one happened to be in that moment (not a very Norwegian thing to do normally). Then hours of consuming news and searching the net for meaning. Being too far away to join the masses in Oslo with flowers and candles my little family light candles in our DC home, on different web sites and participated in events on Facebook. Even though some part of me dislikes FB it turned out to be my first source of comfort, as it is where most of my friends are. People have changed their profile images to IloveOslo, flags or candles, share links to anything they find meaningful and create events and groups relating to different aspects of the tragedy. There’s a group for the different victims, like for the 10 year old who confronted the terrorist after he had shot his dad, for the 13 year old girl who thought she’d better leave Norway to save Norwegian children for similar anti-Muslim terror…even one supporting the heartbroken mother of the terrorist.
Official media are already discussing and asking the people what to do with all the flowers, candles and memoralia covering offical plazas and streets, and Norwegian museums are probably asking themselves what their role should be in the healing of the nation in the years to come.
Personally I like the plans for the soon to open National 911 memorial and museum in New York and how people can contribute to it. And I found this post from the Museum of American History to be thought provoking.
But most of all I like the idea that the people should make the memorial and that the museums “only” provide tools and advice we might need.