Creating the Virtual Museum of Anthropology

When Governor Inslee issued his Stay Home/Stay Healthy order on March 23, 2020, we closed the Museum of Anthropology in College Hall and went home. While faculty and graduate teaching assistants could teach remotely, they lost access to the exhibits in the Museum and the artifacts stored behind the exhibit area. Under normal circumstances, they can borrow selected artifacts for use in the classroom by coming down, looking through the stacks, and checking artifacts out to use in courses such as Art & Society, Introductory Anthropology, Introduction to Archaeology, and Native Peoples of North America, or for display/demonstration at student-focused events on or off campus.

Faculty in other departments, including English, Fine Arts, History, and Education, send students to the Museum for class projects and for specific assignments. Classes focused on artifacts are often structured to be set up in the exhibit area and use artifacts from our Learning Collection that can be handled, measured, drawn, and described. And every year we work with the WSU Visitor Center to schedule groups of K-12 students from throughout eastern Washington, Oregon, and northern Idaho who visit the Museum. We’ve even had groups of preschool students from the Day Care Center stop by in the summer.

Museum of Anthropology

Washington State University

PO Box 644910 | Pullman WA | 99164-4910

Because of the pandemic, the museum is currently closed to public.

Chehalis (Cowlitz) artifact.
Chehalis (Cowlitz) coiled oval lidded basket (Object Number 0000.0.242) Black, geometric design and cord handle. Black and white photo, same series as 0000.0.108, no source information, no information regarding material. Black and white photo 1978.

The solution was to begin searching for the funding necessary to create an online gallery on our website which would give faculty, students, and the general public access to artifacts in the collection.

It didn’t take long to discover that the national Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) had such a grant program and that one of its foci was “expanding access to collections and associated resources.” The proposal would be due in November, which gave us plenty of time to brainstorm, and did not require matching funds. We knew that the maximum amount of funding available would not begin to allow us to photograph, describe, and upload everything, but we knew that if we could create a successful demonstration project, it would help us to secure additional funding in the future, either from IMLS or from other sources.

Our first task was to choose the artifacts for the demonstration project. Since faculty and graduate teaching assistants were our main customers, it would make sense to ask them which artifacts would be most useful to them in their classes and in their own research. We used our PastPerfectIV© database software to create a spreadsheet of all artifacts in the collection, sorted them by category and by geographical area, and began the process of working with faculty on choosing artifacts.

Bags and baskets are important items in our collection and represent one quarter of our artifact collection. Seventy of those are from the Columbia Plateau, and can be sourced to the Nez Perce, Yakama, Colville, or Klickitat people. Including representative examples of these would also be important to our gallery.

Chehalis (Cowlitz) artifact.
Same artifact as seen in photo above – Color photo with top-down view of 0000.0.242 with a scale included to show the dimensions of the basket. Veterans Curation Program technicians practiced photography skills using this basket after training by Assistant Lab Manager Cassady Fairlane. Cassady was trained by Dave Knoerlein, forensic photographer (, who will be the trainer for our IMLS Inspire! grant.

One of the collections that WSU has held for many years was donated by Lucullus V. McWhorter starting in 1941. The artifacts that McWhorter collected and received as gifts while working closely with the Yakama and Nez Perce tribes are housed at the Museum. The documents are housed at WSU’s Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections (MASC) in the Holland/Terrell Library. We consulted with Trevor Bond, associate dean for Digital Initiatives and Special Collections, who sent along an article he’d written on the McWhorter Collection (Bond, Trevor James 2011 “From Treasure Room to Archives: The McWhorter Papers and the State College of Washington,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Spring 2011).

After reading the article, we decided that the 10 artifacts we have that relate to Yellow Wolf and the Nez Perce War of 1877 might be a good place to start. We will be consulting with members of the Nez Perce tribe to determine if this is an appropriate choice.

The video in our demonstration project will be based on our current Kaya exhibit created by Elliot Helmer, PhD student, using artifacts donated to the Museum by the late Lillian Ackerman. Ackerman was a cultural anthropologist, ethnographer, and professor emeritus in the Anthropology department, who worked with the eight member Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee to bring Kaya and her world to life. Their work ensured that Kaya and her stories would be a respectful and accurate representation of life in the Nez Perce homeland (Lewiston Morning Tribune, August 17, 2002). Using photographs of these artifacts. The American Girl doll series introduced Kaya, a young, 18th-century Nez Perce (Nimi’ipuu) girl, in 2002. Kaya lived in the Nez Perce homeland of Idaho, Oregon, and Washington in the post-contact era but before permanent European settlement. Her full name, Kaya’aton’my’, means “she who arranges rocks.”

Photographing these artifacts will require professional expertise. Most of the photographs we have were taken in the 1970s, are black-and-white, and show little detail or scale. Dave Knoerlein, a forensic photographer, trains lab managers and technicians for the Veterans Curation Program to produce professional quality photos.

The online gallery and the video will include photographs that show design, construction, and materials. Descriptions will be both written and verbal in order to reach people of all different ages, interests, and abilities.

Our proposal was submitted and we expect to be notified in August 2021 if the funding will be granted. We might even be able to have the Museum open again by then, but remote teaching is becoming even more popular and greater access to our collections is still needed.