Behind the Scenes: the Archives of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland

February 6, 2018 Claire O'Neill

Archives can offer deep and meaningful insights, not only for a particular subject, but for an entire field of study. This holds true for the archives of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (RAI) which illustrate the history of not only various indigenous groups and cultures, but also of the study of anthropology itself.

In the exclusive “behind the scenes” video  below, one of the world’s most renowned archives, Anthropologist Christopher Pinney and Sarah Walpole, Archivist and Photo Curator for RAI, delve into the archives to illuminate specific examples of some of the preserved collections that they are passionate about.

Up close and personal

As the author of Photography and Anthropology, Pinney is particularly focused on the relationship between anthropology and photography.

Thumbing through a collection of historic materials, Pinney introduces Edward Horace Mann, a colonial officer in the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, who took numerous photographs of the natives he met. But perhaps the most curious part of this collection is an anonymously hand-drawn image of E.H. Mann himself, huddled under the camera curtain as the subjects of his photograph stood against a tree.

This drawing, mixed in with formal images, “suddenly startles viewers by the presence of an image coming from a completely different viewpoint, an indigenous viewpoint, in a different medium.”

This is one of the experiences that’s unique to examining primary sources, as interaction with original materials allows for a more visceral understanding of the historical context.

Memorial or Ruin? Anthropology in evolution

As Pinney examines photographs of one Pygmy man covered in measurement tape, it’s impossible not to reflect on the progress of anthropology as a field—and of the world itself. The image evokes the primitive interpretations of Darwin’s evolutionary theories, marking the “shuttering to a halt of the institution’s collecting of anthropometric images.”

In fact, a new anthropology was in the making, and these photos serve both as a memorial of the Pygmies as an ethnic group, as well as a ruin of an obsolete method of practicing anthropology. This broad shift would steep anthropology in fieldwork rather than decontextualization and ultimately alter the way researchers interact with research subjects.

For Men’s Eyes Only

In what may be the most elucidating indication of how times have changed, Sarah Walpole handles an envelope marked “Central Australia Men’s Ceremony – Men Only to View,” as part of a box containing famous photographs of the last of the Tasmanians, an ethnic group that is now extinct. Walpole respects this and does not look at its contents, demonstrating the archivist’s deep respect for not just the archived materials, but also reverence towards the original authors.

Walpole’s inability to view some of the contents of RAI’s archives demonstrates one of the daily challenges archivists face; she must honor the wishes of those who created the materials and treat each item with the utmost care. This also depicts the value of the collections and their critical role in preserving the culture and practices of otherwise unknown societies.

The Challenges – and Rewards – of Archivists Today

As Walpole navigates the RAI archives, she must wade through boxes, shelves, drawers, and closets, each housing different collections and different types of materials. These moments demonstrate the difficulty of accessing and using these materials in everyday research—not only must you know what you’re looking for, but you must also know where to find it.

Archivists and anthropologists devote their days to preserving and respecting collections of primary sources, and they play an instrumental role in the introduction of archives into everyday research. Thus, these professionals are the reason that these materials are not ruins or evidence of destruction, but instead become memorials for civilizations, people, and places that, although perhaps no longer exist, still have the power to transcend the restraints of time.

Continue the Conversation

Sarah Walpole, Archivist and Photo Curator at the Royal Anthropological Institute, will be discussing RAI’s archive collection and the importance of digitization in Denver this February at the ALA Midwinter Conference.

The archive collection from the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland will be digitized and available on Wiley Digital Archives this spring. Sign up for a personal demonstration of Wiley Digital Archives during the ALA Midwinter Conference here.

Download the eBook, Making Historical Collections Accessible, to learn more about the digitization of primary sources.

About the Author

Claire O'Neill

Library Services, Wiley //

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