This weekend the University of Michigan Museum of Anthropological Archaeology (UMMAA) celebrated 100 years with a four-day international conference featuring speakers from across the world. The conference discussed the future of anthropology and possibilities for new research.
LSA Dean Anne Curzan gave the opening remarks and discussed the museum’s role as one of the four research museums in the LSA’s Research Museum Center, which holds 3.5 million artifacts from 150 countries and covers a wide range of human history.
“Some (of the artifacts) are, as they were described to me, mundane; the detritus of thousands of years of human life, from which archaeologists glean information about our species origins and development,” Curzan said. “Many of these items, though, bear direct witness to the wonder, resilience, diversity and sometimes pain of people in the distant and more recent past.”
Curzan then discussed the origins of certain anthropogenic collections and the efforts being made by the museum and LSA to either repatriate or reconnect communities with displaced artifacts and remains.
One of the founding collections of the UMMAA comes from a 1922 expedition to the Philippines led by U-M alumnus and professor Carl E. Guthe. ReConnect/ReCollect is working to decolonize the museum’s Philippine collections and make artifacts more accessible to the wider Filipino community. The project expects to make a fully online inventory of the Philippine collections.
Curzan said some of the artifacts in the UMMAA’s collection belonged to native tribes in Michigan and said the University is committed to returning the human remains to them. The University’s efforts to return human remains to native tribes follow the The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), a federal law mandating the return of human remains, funerary objects and sacred objects to lineal descendants, Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations.
“I know that the museum and NAGPRA compliance staff are deeply committed to working with Native American partners and tribes across Michigan and the nation to return human remains to bring ancestors home to rest,” Curzan said.
Barbra Meek, professor of linguistic anthropology at the University, highlighted the repatriation efforts the museum is making. She recounted one of the first repatriations following NAGPRA’s passing, the return of human remains and funerary objects to the Whitefish River First Nation in Canada.
“Since then, the museum has been setting the standard for repatriation world-wide,” Meek said.
Kelly Askew, professor of sociocultural anthropology at the University of Michigan, talked about UMMAA’s connections with the Department of Anthropology and their joint approach to DEI initiatives. She encouraged attendees to visit the UMMAA Evolving website to read a more detailed description of the museum’s goals and motivations.
“UMMAA is also a leader in reimagining a more inclusive way of pursuing archaeology that includes more diverse voices and perspectives, more attention to equity, inequity and justice, and a commitment to engaging the communities where archaeologists work in their work,” Askew said.
Following the opening remarks, a plenary session discussed the evolution of archaeological theory.
Alison Wylie, professor of anthropology at the University of British Columbia, talked about the importance of diverse perspectives in archaeology. She discussed the convergence of gender studies and archaeology, and its impact on the field.
“Taking account of dissonant perspectives or, better yet, critical standpoints on knowledge production can only enrich general and comparative approaches to archaeology,” Wylie said.
Michael Blakey, professor of Anthropology and American Studies at the College of William & Mary, pointed out that African American scholars have been navigating multiple perspectives in academic contexts decades before scholars applied feminist theory to different disciplines.
“White people believe they understand the world because they taught the discipline themselves, but they don’t understand the world as African American or diasporic people do because those people have to live in two worlds,” Blakey said.
Patricia McAnny, professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, then discussed the role of community in archaeology, providing research questions, conclusions and alternative hypotheses to anthropologists.
“There are many ways of knowing and understanding the past,” McAnny said. “Archaeology is one very powerful and very privileged way of understanding the past, but it is not the only way,” McAnny said.
The second day of the conference started with scholars presenting new and ongoing research on intercultural spaces. The scholars raised questions about the boundaries between cultures, what cultural influence and change looks like in the archaeological record and how the imperial and colonial periods impact the lived experiences in the present.
LSA senior Abigail Rieck said her favorite presentation was from Ayana Flewellen, a professor of anthropology at Stanford University, on the use of coral in colonial era buildings on the island of St. Croix. Some of the former sugar plantation buildings are now used as an elementary school for children on the island.
“I found the interplay between the past and the present in Ayana Flewellen’s presentation really fascinating,” Rieck said. “It’s something I am really interested in.”
The rest of the weekend featured a graduate student poster session and graduate student panel discussion.
Daily Staff Reporter Teagan Stebbins can be reached at email@example.com.