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Cataloguing the Collections at Yellowstone’s Heritage and Research Center

Jul 27 2016

Image: One of the more bizarre objects I’ve been tasked with cataloguing was a misspelled “Yeleowstone” souvenir beaded belt. The catalog number of the belt is “YELL 62824,”and I staged the photograph on July 5th. Interestingly, though the belt appears to be inspired by Native American design motifs, there is a stamp on the inside that reads, “Made in Hong Kong.”

By Emily Santhanam
B.A., Anthropology, 2016
Curatorial Intern at Yellowstone National Park

Out West Student Blog

Student Blog

I first saw it framed in Yellowstone’s Northern arch: a clean-lined building with a bright red awning, nestled amidst mountains and fields of elk. My workspace for the next ten weeks, the Heritage and Research Center (HRC) of Yellowstone National Park, appeared not unlike a mirage in the soft golden light of that Montana morning. After 20+ hours of cruising highways and gulping black coffee, I was finally making the transition from recent graduate to curatorial intern.

Working at the HRC in museum collections has been a whirlwind of an introduction to not only the curatorial profession, but also the greater goals of the National Park Service (NPS). Across National Parks in the United States, NPS policy is to collect, protect, preserve, provide access to, and use objects, specimens, and archival and manuscript collections to aid understanding and advance knowledge. This mission statement is particularly pertinent when considering the HRC, because it is home to not only museum collections storage, but also the research library, archives, historian, archaeology lab, and herbarium.

What I’ve come to appreciate about work in museum collections is that, in one way or another, it ends up incorporating aspects of every and any field in relation to Yellowstone National Park. The museum collection includes over 300,000 objects – from cultural artifacts to natural science specimens – that speak to the history, archaeology, and ethnology of the park.

Over the past few weeks I have been identifying, researching, photographing, and cataloguing some of the diverse objects that have been accessioned into the HRC. I’ve catalogued a misspelled “Yeleowstone” beaded belt from the 1960’s; Yellowstone salt and pepper shaker souvenirs from the 1950’s; and hundreds of original postcards from the “golden era” of postcards (which lasted from 1898 to 1916, roughly). In doing so, I’ve been able to interact with material culture in a way that helps me better understand Yellowstone’s distinct cultural history – a task that’s especially important this year, as it marks the centennial for the NPS.

Now that I’ve been introduced to the basics of museum curatorial work, I’m in the preliminary stages of researching, organizing, and staging my own one-case exhibit. With this project, I’ll be able to sift through the museum collections, while also exploring the primary sources and special collections that live upstairs in the archives and research library. To be given the freedom and responsibility to embark on my own Yellowstone-related research question is thrilling (albeit slightly terrifying), and I look forward to finalizing the object list, composing the labels, and installing the exhibit: just five short weeks, and I’ll be unveiling the finished project in my final blog post. Until then, I’ll keep relishing in the intrigue of artifact cataloguing – as well as my serene, sun-soaked morning drives, under the arches to the HRC.

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