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Zuni Museum Enlists AMNH in New Digital Collaborative Catalog

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A delegation of five Zuni representatives visited the American Museum of Natural History recently on an exciting cultural mission—to add the Museum’s substantial ethnographic collection of over 1,700 Zuni artifacts to an innovative digital collaborative catalog created by and for the Zuni people. This collaboration was funded by the National Park Service through a generous grant, which the Museum applied for on the delegation’s behalf.

Representatives from the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center in New Mexico, led by Executive Director Jim Enote, are taking information about Zuni objects from disparate digital collections all over the world and uniting them in a shared platform or database where Zunis can add their own comments and critiques. In addition to the American Museum of Natural History, the database already lists Zuni holdings from the Museum of Archeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, England; the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka, Japan; and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, to name a few.

“Museums are contact zones for mediating different knowledge systems,” said Enote. “This collaborative catalog retains how objects are identified in the language of museums, but it also adds the voice of the Zuni describing the contextual uses of the same objects and adding personal narratives.”

Over the course of five days, staff from the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center and several Zuni religious leaders added valuable cultural context and narrative to many of the Museum’s objects ranging from Zuni textiles to pottery. A textile in the Museum’s collection listed as a “Hopi blanket” was identified as a Zuni ceremonial shawl by the delegation, which recognized a distinctive Zuni diamond pattern incorporated into the weave.

Most museums from New Mexico to England have discrepancies or misinformation in about 80 percent of their Zuni artifact descriptions, according to Enote and other members of the delegation.

“It’s in everyone’s best interest to set the record straight,” said Laurel Kendall, curator and division chair in the Museum’s Division of Anthropology. “This collaboration insures a two-way exchange of information between the Museum and the source community.”

“We’re proud to participate in this exciting project,” said Peter Whiteley, curator of North American Ethnology in the Division of Anthropology. “With direct Zuni expertise, the Museum’s Zuni collection, considered one of the largest in the world, will be enhanced immeasurably—to the benefit of both Zunis and all non-Zunis interested in Zuni culture.”

“It was an honor to work with individuals so knowledgeable about Zuni culture and so willing to share their expertise with us,” said Nell Murphy, the Museum’s director of cultural resources. “I am pleased that this important collection will be given new dimension and use.”

The Zuni (or A:shiwi as they refer to themselves) are a Native American tribe, one of the Pueblo peoples, who mostly live in the Pueblo of Zuni in western New Mexico, about 150 miles west of Albuquerque.  They have farmed the Zuni River Valley for thousands of years, raising primarily corn, squash, beans, and other vegetables. Living isolated from most communities, the Zuni have successfully preserved their unique language, culture, and religious ceremonies for generations.  The A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center was founded in 1992 by a small group of Zuni tribal members as a private not-for-profit organization dedicated to serving the Zuni community and preserving their culture.

The resulting online collaborative catalog will primarily serve as a cultural resource for the Zuni people, and portions will also be available to interested researchers.

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