A History of the Collection

The UW Anthropology Collection has a long and rich history that has culminated in a renowned collection that is highly valued and routinely accessed by professionals from around the world.

Anthropology-focused courses have been offered at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as early as 1897. These were most often taught within the Economics and Sociology Departments until 1929, when a separate Department of Sociology and Anthropology was established.

The Anthropology Department split from the Department of Sociology in 1958 and has been dedicated to a three-field anthropological approach ever since: cultural, biological, and archaeological anthropology. Some linguistic courses are also offered through the Department, although most linguistic needs are met through the various languages departments on campus. The tradition of partnering with other departments on campus has continued through today to provide a rich curriculum for our UW students.

Since the department’s inception in 1929, although likely before, collection objects have been acquired for use in research and education. However, a dedicated curatorial position was not established until 2007. Prior to that time, the collections were managed by faculty and students, as time allowed or as needed for research and teaching projects.

In 1991, a 0.50FTE position was created (“Assistant Scientist”) to facilitate use, exhibition, and public outreach for the collections, and was subject to annual renewal at the discretion of the department. While the position focused on collections, its title holder often provided more laboratory-based skills than those traditionally associated with curation.

In 2007, this position was made permanent (renamed as “Curator”), requiring both collections management and instruction components in the job description. In 2016, the position was raised to 0.75FTE, recognizing the workload needed to adequately manage the collection’s needs. In July 2022, the position was raised to 1.0FTE, with the last 0.25FTE designated for campus-wide NAGPRA compliance as the Campus NAGPRA Coordinator.

The minimal staffing assigned to this collection means ongoing management continues to heavily rely on volunteers (mainly students). This provides unique opportunities for students to gain hands-on experience at a professional level in museum studies and curatorial practices. Student-based positions (student hourly, LTE, and course-based internships) are available when needed and when funding can be secured. Although the Curator tries to accommodate student interest, the ebbs and flows of collection activity, as well as extremely limited workspace for collection staff, means these positions are not available every semester. Students are not considered for hire as collection staff unless they have either completed applicable coursework or have prior experience working in museum collections.

The UWAC conservatively totals more than 500,000 objects and object lots and consists of many types of collections: archaeological research/teaching, ethnographic research/teaching, biological research/teaching, and archives. The archaeological research collections are further separated into department-owned, government-owned, and NAGPRA collections, depending on who holds title (or control) over each.

As is the case with many university-based collections, storage space has always been inadequate. The department has historically managed multiple off-site storage spaces, whose age, state, and storage methods exacerbated the deteriorating preservation condition of the collections. In 2007, the department received an Instructional Lab Modernization (ILM) campus grant through the College of Letters & Sciences to remodel the main storage room in the Social Science building. This provided one location to permanently store and manage our research collections. The teaching collections remain more accessible for use on the 5th floor of the building. Even with this remodel, new acquisitions (and rehousing of legacy collections) will require additional storage space within the next 15-20 years or sooner, depending on projected government contracts and new acquisitions.

Although the collections have always been valued by the department, policies and procedures regarding long-term care and use, following modern best practices, have only been emphasized with the implementation of the Curator (Academic Staff) position. As such, the collections are slowly being upgraded to meet modern standards for care. It is currently estimated that around 70% of the collection has yet to be inventoried, cataloged, and rehoused properly. Limited staffing, in conjunction with the large curation backlog, means we rely heavily on researchers, students and volunteers to meet these collections management needs.

The first courses with a focus on Anthropology were taught by Sociology professors: Edward A. Ross (who became the first chair of the Sociology and Anthropology Department in 1929), John Lewis Gillin, and Kimball Young (who taught the first openly Cultural Anthropology course, “Social Origins”). In 1927, Ralph Linton was hired as the first professional anthropologist on campus. He was paramount in justifying an Anthropology designation to the Department. Linton consulted heavily with Fay Cooper-Cole at the University of Illinois (who had started his own Anthropology Department just a short time before) to develop the course outline and curricula. Charlotte Gower Chapman, one of Cooper-Cole’s students, joined the UW faculty in 1930. Because of the joint nature of the department, it is difficult to tell at this early point which faculty were solely sociologists and which taught primarily anthropology courses.

Anthropology courses expanded after establishment of the Department in 1929, and again in 1958, although they continued to remain heavily culturally-focused. As of the early 2000s, if not before, introductory courses in Biological Anthropology (ANTHRO105), Cultural Anthropology (ANTHRO104) and Archaeology (ANTHRO212) accommodate hundreds of students each year, with a pedagogical curriculum that includes hands-on learning using teaching collections.

Anthropology Collection Curators

Major Contributors to the UWAC Collections