Skip to main content Smithsonian Institution

Salvaging a Record for Humankind: Urgent Anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution, 1964-1984

Catalog Data

Link, Adrianna Halina  Search this
Tax, Sol 1907-1995  Search this
Ripley, Sidney Dillon 1913-2001  Search this
Ph.D. dissertation
Physical description:
Number of pages: 319; Page numbers: 1-311
United States
Smithsonian History Bibliography
Available at
This dissertation examines the development of an international research program called "urgent anthropology" organized by scientists and staff at the Smithsonian Institution from the mid-1960s until the 1980s. It shows how through the program's expansion during this period, ideas of urgency came to hold different meanings for different groups of people and provided a useful framework for research cutting across the natural and social sciences. By situating urgent anthropology as a product of Cold War anxieties, this dissertation also considers larger questions about the potential and limitations of museums as sites for interdisciplinary research, the application of new investigative technologies (such as ethnographic film), and the shifting responsibilities and challenges facing museums and archives for preserving records of human diversity.
Following in the tradition of turn-of-the-century salvage anthropology, urgent anthropology began as a project devoted to the documentation of linguistic, behavioral, and physical data from cultures perceived to be disappearing after World War II. Under the leadership of its principal organizers, Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley and his advisor on anthropology, University of Chicago anthropologist Sol Tax, this initiative grew into a multidisciplinary project that championed the integration of perspectives from the human sciences, especially anthropology, with contemporary views on environmental conservation and ecology. This collaboration could best be achieved within the Smithsonian's museums, where researchers could more easily cross-disciplinary boundaries and could apply the outcomes of their work to construct exhibits displaying a variety of social and scientific topics. In addition, the Institution's museums provided a built-in repository where artifacts, field notes, ethnographic films, and other materials could be stored for future use. Through this approach, the study of human beings and their cultures became a central means of confronting some of the radical transformations of the 1960s and 1970s.
Contact information:
Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, SW, Washington, D.C. 20024-2520,
World politics  Search this
Environmental sciences  Search this
Ecology  Search this
Anthropologists  Search this
Salvage archaeology  Search this
Anthropology  Search this
Cold War  Search this
Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University
Data Source:
Smithsonian Archives - History Div