It’s been quite an adjustment over the past year, as a zoologist, to suddenly find myself working in an anthropology collection. I’d be the first to admit that I know next to nothing about the various cultures and peoples of this world, and would probably struggle to point to the places that many of our objects are from on a map.
But what I’ve discovered is that I love objects, no matter what they are. I may not always appreciate the anthropological significance of the objects we work with, but I love their artistry and ingenuity, being able to examine their construction and compare them with objects of a similar function from all over the world. Our collections are stored systematically by type rather than geographically, so I get to compare the incredibly varied forms of charms used to ward off sickness, and the striking similarity in the design of mole traps from different countries. It turns out there are many ways to fight disease, but only one way to trap a mole!
And my work is not completely divorced from my subject specialism; a huge proportion of our anthropology collection is made from animal materials, and I am learning a huge amount just from examining them under a hand lens. I can now confidently distinguish bone from ivory or antler, identify worked horn, claws, teeth, sinew and baleen (which I was surprised to learn was historically used quite commonly in North America to make fishing lines!), and I am constantly amazed at the infinite variety of forms these materials can take at the hands of a skilled craftsperson.
Plus, there can’t be many workplaces in which a debate about the best method of trapping a giraffe is considered perfectly normal staffroom conversation!
I love my job.