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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Department of Anthropology


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Recovering Voices brings together research carried out worldwide by anthropologists, biologists, folklorists, geographers, mineral scientists, community members, linguists, historians, museum professionals and others interested in preserving and enlivening endangered languages and knowledge systems.


Joshua A. Bell (NMNH)
Dawn Biddison (NMNH)
Melissa Bisagni (NMAI)
Aron Crowell (NMNH)
Ives Goddard (NMNH)
Candace Greene (NMNH)
Kristofer Helgen (NMNH)
Emil Her Many Horses (NMAI)
Marjorie Hunt (CFCH)
Gwyneira Isaac (NMNH)
Robert Leopold (NMNH)
Keevin Lewis (NMAI)
Michael Mason (NMNH)  
Timothy McCoy (NMNH)  
William Merrill (NMNH)  
David Penney (NMAI)  
Gabriela Pérez Báez (NMNH)  
Christyna Solhan (NMNH)  
Lucy Thomason (NMNH)  
Elizabeth Weatherford (NMAI)  

The role of cultural knowledge as manifested by cultural practices and objects is the driving factor in the development of our methodology. In 2010, Recovering Voices was awarded a Grand Challenges grant from the Smithsonian Institution to collaborate initially with five communities around the world. These communities were chosen on the basis of personal relations and collection strengths of the Smithsonian.



  • Hopi Pueblo in Northern Arizona, USA
  • I’ai communities in Purari Delta, Papua New Guinea
  • San Lucas Quiaviní Zapotec communities in Los Angeles, CA, USA and Oaxaca, Mexico
  • Meskwaki and the Sauk communities in Iowa and Oklahoma, USA
  • Athabascan communities in Alaska, USA


Participants working in these diverse locales are each examining aspects of language and knowledge loss and revitalization, and striving to implement a core methodology.

  • Understanding how knowledge is generated through Smithsonian collections: reconnecting community members with relevant collections—audio recordings, cultural artifacts, film, natural history specimens, photographs, and linguistic materials.
  • Intergenerational dynamics are key to the sustainability of knowledge systems and language, enabling us to understand the relationship between social context and pedagogical agency, both within the museum and communities.
  • Multi-sited and comparative ethnography: recognizing the multiple venues in which people, ideas and things travel. This dynamic enables us to interpret differences between institutional and informal approaches to revitalizing languages and the creation of knowledge.
  • Effective return of research to ensure that the proposed collaborations are of benefit to all partners. Shared agency is a critical component as we forge collaborations with communities, identifying strategic areas of mutual interest and focus resources on shared goals.

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