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Adrianna Link, Ph.D., Head of Scholarly Programs, American Philosophical Society Library & Museum
Urgent Anthropology and the Archival Imperative
What does it mean to create an anthropological archive at different moments in the discipline’s history? This talk explores this question by tracing the development of the Smithsonian’s program in “urgent anthropology.” Initiated in the mid-1960s, the program began in the salvage tradition of the Institution’s Bureau of American Ethnology and set out to document and preserve the languages and lifeways of the world’s cultures for future study. Yet by the 1970s, the coalescence of a global community of anthropologists and changing ethical and professional standards within the discipline raised questions about who or what ought to be considered in need of urgent research. At the same time, growing international anxieties over the depletion of natural resources and the deleterious effects of pollution and overpopulation demanded that scientists and policymakers alike pay more attention to studies of human behavior. Urgent anthropology became a vehicle for responding to the crises affecting both anthropology and the environment, and inspired the creation of several interdisciplinary centers committed to assembling, storing, and mobilizing anthropological data. Reading the history of the Smithsonian’s anthropological archives in this context underscores the continued cultural and scientific value of these materials while also offering an important cautionary tale about the limits of technology and institutions in supporting archival work.