Thomae – Inventories

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The inventory was probably the most ambitious aspect of the NAGPRA implementation process. Each museum is different. Our, as I mentioned before, collections are quite large. And so at that point part of our ethnographic collection was inventoried. So that part helped with about 40% of what we had to report in a certain way. However, our archaeological material, which included our human remains, had no inventory. Nobody had ever done it. And at that time we were about a hundred years old when NAGPRA—a little over a hundred years old. So thinking about a hundred years old of history, of thousands and thousands of things in your collection. So we really had a lot of work to do. One of the difficulties of implementing NAGPRA– and in fact our president at the time went before Congress, [for] an amendment to this particular law (he was one of three museum presidents). The law basically said there will be money available for museums and tribes to use to implement the law. However, nothing was put aside by Congress.

So, it wasn’t until 1994, after the first deadline, which is four years after the law was passed, that any monies became available for either museums, which didn’t help a lot because museums when the law passed weren’t prepared to have budgets to hire people to do this, or the workload, which was enormous, for a museum of our size. So, the inventory process was difficult, and I remember thinking back fondly how I could have really done this, but one summer I had 22 interns working alone just on preparing summary information for the tribes. We sent over 586 letters to tribes reporting our holdings. And all that material—remember, this was before computerization—everything had to be done by hand, so going to our documentation, going to file folders and catalog books and little index cards, and pulling all this information together. So I devised an inventory sheet, a NAGPRA inventory sheet. It’s one sheet of paper and it has all the basic information.

A catalog number is basically our finding number, so we had that catalog number, an accession, which is the group of items it came with. It had the tribe or cultural group listed. Then it had what the name of the object was, for example, wampum. Then it had a description of the object, as well as the materials of which it was made out of. Then, after that, it had comments. So for example, if there was something in our ledger book that said “was owned by somebody,” we had it in quotation marks and then the source was noted. Then it had information as to when it came into the museum, who gave it to us, who it was collected by, where it was collected, and then a checkmark system that I developed, making sure that all these sources were checked. So, if there was a photograph, for example, we would write the negative number down and then also we had whoever filled out that sheet—it was their name as well as the date it was completed, and the last part was where it was stored on exhibit or in storage.

And then I had some wonderful people who were talented at drawing. They drew the object if we felt it wasn’t sensitive. So for example, they didn’t draw human remains. Or projectile points. They weren’t sensitive material. It’s just that we have over 10,000 of them in the collection, so I asked that there were certain things that we just don’t draw. But they did draw things that you need more detail for, to really understand. There were several groups, which we understood, too, at that time that didn’t want items photographed. So they’re very excited to get these sheets for each item that could be copied and distributed among their tribe for reviewing, for a request for repatriation, or just to even know to have this wonderful resource of exactly what was in our collections.

My name is Dawn Scher Thomae and I am the Anthropology Collections manager and associate curator of the Milwaukee Public Museum.

Production credits:

Executive Producer, Loretta Fowler
Assistant Producer, Brian Mornar
Production, Mike Media Group
Camera, Michael DiGioia
Video Editor, Kahrin Deines

Photo credits:

Archives storage room – photo courtesy of Milwaukee Public Museum
Projectile points – photo courtesy of Milwaukee Public Museum

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