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

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  • 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.


  • Tax, Sol 1907-1995
  • Ripley, Sidney Dillon 1913-2001


Smithsonian History Bibliography


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Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, SW, Washington, D.C. 20024-2520,


  • 2016
  • 1945-1989


  • Salvage archaeology
  • Environmental sciences
  • Cold War, 1945-1989
  • Anthropology
  • World politics
  • Ecology
  • Anthropologists
  • Cold War


United States


Ph.D. dissertation

Physical description

Number of pages: 319; Page numbers: 1-311

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