Changes at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science

By Stephen E. Nash (Denver Museum of Nature & Science)

The department of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science (DMNS) has initiated the Anthropology Collections Synthesis Project, a long-term endeavor to systematically and ethically review, document, synthesize, and preserve knowledge about its anthropology collections. It has also launched the Indigenous Inclusiveness Initiative to engage indigenous artists, interns, elders, and scholars, throughout the department’s work. In order to enhance and improve these projects, the department seeks inquiries and comments about, and contributions to, the collections and their associated documents.

A Brief History of the Department

The seminal artifact in the collections is the Folsom point discovered in 1927 at the eponymous Paleoindian type-site in New Mexico by DMNS paleontologist Jesse Figgins. In spite of the importance of this find, the department of anthropology did not exist as such until 1936, when Hannah Marie Wormington became curator of archaeology, a position she held until 1968. Wormington contributed importantly toward the understanding of Paleoindian and Archaic occupations of western North America.

Arminta (Skip) Neal, a noted Denver artist and exhibit designer, led anthropology’s growth 1968–1977. Joyce Herold began a long tenure as anthropology curator in 1977, served as chief curator 1982-89, and retired as curator of ethnology in 2005. Herold made significant contributions to documentation of DMNS collections and accessibility through exhibition and publication, working with one of the nation’s first indigenous advisory councils. Mesoamericanist Jane S. Day served as curator of archaeology for nearly 20 years from 1985, including seven years as chief curator, thus continuing a tradition of dedicated leadership by women anthropologists. More recently, Robert B. Pickering (1991–1999) and E. James Dixon (1994–2000) served as curators of anthropology and archaeology, respectively, and Ella Maria Ray curated African collections and headed the department (2000-2005).

Three PhD-holding curators currently conduct and publish peer-reviewed research, while the collections manager, Isabel Tovar, oversees extensive loan, inventory and volunteer programs. Steven Holen, curator of archaeology since 2001, maintains the strong DMNS presence in Paleoindian research, focusing on pre-Clovis sites and their taphonomy. Stephen E. Nash joined the department as chair in 2006. He is author or editor of three books, most recently Curators, Collections, and Contexts: Anthropology at The Field Museum 1893 – 2002 (2003). His current research focuses on Southwestern dendrochronology and the history of North American museum-based anthropology.

Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh began serving as curator of anthropology in July 2007. He has authored or edited five books, the latest of which is Massacre at Camp Grant: Forgetting and Remembering Apache History (2007). His research will focus increasingly on exploring connections between nature and culture in indigenous societies.

Ethnology Collections

The American Ethnology Collection is dominated by the 11,600-piece Crane American Indian Collection, donated to the museum in 1968. Amassed largely from 1951 to1968, the Crane Collection includes many of the essential objects that document 19th and early 20th century North American material culture. Important sub-groups include the Peace Medal Collection and parts of the Fred Harvey Company Collection and Axell Rasmussen Northwest Coast Collection. Two-dimensional works from artists like Woody Crumbo (Potawatomie), Otis Polelonema (Hopi), George Catlin, and Fredrick Catherwood are represented in the Ethnological Art Collection.

The 8,000-piece World Ethnology Collection features mid-20th century San, Bantu, Tswana and other southern African material culture. The Southeast Asian Collection includes Hmong, Mien, Akha, Lahu, Lisu and Karen objects from the northern margins of Thailand, Laos and Burma and related materials from southwestern China and Hmong Americans. The 700-piece Oceanic Collection surveys material culture from Hawaii to Papua New Guinea and Australia.

Archaeology Collections

The American Archaeology Collection includes 17,000 artifacts from the Rocky Mountain, Southwest and Plains regions, most importantly Paleoindian materials from sites like Folsom, Dent, Lindenmeier, Frazier, Jones-Miller and Kanorado. Smaller significant collections represent Mesoamerica, the European Upper Paleolithic and the Southwest. Holen curates the Paleoindian Collection and eastern North American materials; Nash is responsible for the remaining archaeological objects.

Steps Ahead

The entire staff is working to revitalize Crane American Indian Hall, to support and develop traveling exhibitions, to raise funds for collections-based programs and research, and to prepare the collections for installation in a new, state-of-the-art underground storage facility, currently under plan.

In order to enhance these new projects and changes, the DMNS anthropology department invites inquiries and comments about the collections from those who have made use of them in the past or might know yet-unwritten aspects of their history. Staff welcome research visits, with at least two weeks advance planning.

Steve Nash can be reached at snash (at) dmns (dot) org.

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