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Department of Anthropology

Nina Schreiner awarded SPARC grant to study nineteenth-century collection of Native American artifacts

Nina Schreiner has been awarded a SPARC Graduate Research Grant. Her research explores the relationship between nineteenth-century artifact collecting of Native American objects and early archaeology.


What is your research project about?

My research examines the relationship between nineteenth-century artifact collecting and early archaeology as practiced in an unconventional location: the Victorian household. I will examine papers and artifacts from Woodville, a historic house museum near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to understand how collecting was embedded within kinship, neighborhood, and economic relations. 


What prompted you to get involved in your project's research topic?

I came to this topic while employed in collections management at Woodville. During a spring-cleaning event, I came upon some heavy, jam-packed postal boxes in the attic closet. I carried them out one by one and cut through the straining packing tape to find hundreds of stone tools. These were clearly much older than Woodville. I needed to discover who brought them there, when, and why. Even more important: where should they belong today? 


In your SPARC application, you mention the "curtain crisis" of "artifact storage facilities that are running out of space". Apart from your project's " 'sustainable' method of analyzing artifacts excavated in the past", are there any other popular and/or suggested sustainable methods?

The curation crisis has been around since the 1980s, but applying the language of "sustainability" to strategic responses is relatively new. Collections-based research--reanalyzing existing artifacts from earlier excavations--is one way to avoid generating more material to store. Other methods include some GIS-based research and non-invasive survey using equipment such as ground penetrating radar.


Concerning repatriation, what happens to objects which cannot be traced to a specific descendant community?

​The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) describes how to repatriate "culturally unidentifiable" human remains and associated funerary objects. This process involves extensive consultation with all potentially affiliated Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations to determine who has the right of possession. In instances where communities disagree, right of possession may be decided in federal court.


Are there cases where descendant communities choose not to pursue repatriation of community artifacts?

Sometimes communities do request that institutions continue to steward the remains of ancestors and their objects. This may be temporary while a tribal government plans what to do with repatriated ancestors, or indefinitely if a tribe does not have a facility or staff to oversee the process. Some descendant communities have collaborated with museums to develop visitation policies for interacting with their ancestors and objects in museum spaces. Another frequent accommodation is special storage that accords with sacred colorways and directional arrangements


Are there any myths or misconceptions about settler-colonial artifact collections that you'd like to clear up?

In a year or two I hope to present an entire dissertation full of these! For now, I'll stick with one: Only men collected (and continue to collect) artifacts in settler-colonial contexts. Literature on the history of nineteenth-century collecting suggests this practice was associated with Victorian masculinity and hunting culture, from which women were excluded; however, preliminary data from Woodville suggests that women who lived there collected just as much as their brothers and uncles. Stay tuned while I figure out what this new understanding of gender and domesticity means about knowledge production in settler-colonial America...

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.