Adrian Van Allen
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Adrian Van Allen is an anthropologist and artist.

As a sociocultural anthropologist she studies the scientific cultures within museums, their evolving ideas about nature, and what constitutes “life” in an age of genomics, with extensive experience working with both ethnographic and natural history collections. She has worked in and on museums for the past twenty-two years as an ethnographer, researcher, and exhibit content developer, where she managed projects, wrote grants, and collaborated with a variety of stakeholders—from social and biological scientists to indigenous source community members to grant agencies and donors to public audiences. In bringing together ethnographic and natural science collections, scientists, and stakeholder communities, her research underscores the way human culture in an inherent part of nature, one which we are all responsible for collaboratively regenerating.

To date she has led the creation, development, and production of forty-seven research and exhibit projects in museums and universities internationally. She has conducted research in over twenty-five museums and laboratories in six countries (France, Denmark, Italy, Japan, UK, USA). Her research has been funded by the Smithsonian Institution, the Musée du quai Branly, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the Social Science Research Council, among others. Results from this research have been presented at more than thirty conferences internationally. She has published peer-reviewed articles and book chapters on the material culture of collections and collecting (Van Allen 2020a; 2020c), on ethnographic studies within museums (Van Allen 2016; 2017; 2018; 2019b), on emerging uses for museum collections such as genomic sampling (Van Allen 2019a), specimen collections used as a tool for reviving endangered species and regenerating ecologies (Van Allen 2020b; 2020c; 2022), museums as “archives” of cultural heritage and a resource for repair (Van Allen 2019b), and connected anthropological and natural history collections through examining practices and the negotiations for reconstructing pasts and imagined futures (Van Allen 2022; 2020d; 2020c).

Trained as both a cultural anthropologist and an artist, she brings a unique approach to anthropology in the natural history museum. Her vision for integrating the social sciences and natural history includes research as well as formal and informal education and outreach. She has taught courses on the history of museums, material culture, feminist science and technology studies (STS), and served on doctoral committees. She has led student workshops for working with museum collections through observing objects by drawing, photography, and photogrammetry. Through outreach talks and invited lectures she has shared her research with larger public audiences, such as a LongNow Foundation Ignite talk (2019) and a Smithsonian Virtual Science Café presentation (2021), among many others. She also serves on the Council for Museum Anthropology Board as Chair of the Book Award committee, as a Scientific Advisor for the Smithsonian’s Summer Institute in Museum Anthropology (SIMA), as a Scientific Advisor for the upcoming exhibit Our Places: Connecting People and Nature at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, and recently concluded a term on the Board of Directors for the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. She is currently a Research Associate in the Department of Anthropology at the California Academy of Sciences.

She holds a Ph.D. from the University of California Berkeley in Sociocultural Anthropology (2016). Her dissertation was an ethnography of the scientific communities at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. (2014-2016), focused on their on-going project to cryopreserve genomic samples of all life for uncertain futures. She examined the specific material and discursive practices for creating this genetic “archive of life”—that is, how living things are transformed into different kinds of data within the museum (such as specimens, tissue samples, and genomes) and how these parts circulate, accumulating different kinds of values and narratives of time as they shift across domains.

She has conducted postdoctoral research at several institutions internationally. Her postdoctoral research in Paris from 2017-2018 at the Musée du quai Branly and Muséum Nationale d’Histoire Naturelle connected ethnographic featherwork objects and scientific bird specimens collected in the Amazon in the 16th-18th centuries by French expeditions (Van Allen 2019b). In this work she gathered data linking the cultural, scientific, and historical contexts of these specimens and their correlated records of value and use over time. From preserved bird skins, to blood samples, to genomic data—revalued as maps of historical biodiversity, vanished ecologies, and revived cultural heritage for visiting indigenous groups from Brazil—she engaged with the techniques and practices of how matter is made to matter in the context of the Anthropocene.

She has two current research projects (which have been rescheduled/pursued remotely due to the pandemic).

Her postdoctoral research project at the Smithsonian, "Remaking Museums in a Time of Extinction: Amazonian Birds and Featherwork as Cultural and Ecological Heritage," traces the material, semiotic, historical, and technological connections between a group of Kayapo featherwork headresses (Smithsonian NMNH, Department of Anthropology) and bird specimens from two scientific collecting expeditions (Smithsonian NMNH, Division of Birds). She is examining how museum collections are being evaluated as untapped resources, recast as sites for preserved cultural heritage and biodiversity conservation.

The other research project, "Biobanking for the Future in Japan, France and the USA: A Comparative Study of Preserving Biodiversity in an Age of Extinction," is funded by the Social Science Research Council’s Abe Fellowship (2019-2022). The project examines the collection and exchange of specimens, tissue samples, and genomic data at three national museums of natural history in the USA, France and Japan. Members in a global coalition of museums, zoos, and herbariums, these museums are working towards biobanking genome-quality samples of all life as they negotiate between international bioprospecting policies, priorities for biodiversity monitoring, and assessing the impact of species loss on human biomedical, agricultural, and security concerns.

She is also preparing a manuscript of her doctoral research, and co-editing a volume with Dr. Joshua Bell, Curator of Globalization at the Smithsonian NMNH. The volume, Birds as Material Culture: Engagements Between Anthropologists and Zoologists, brings together a variety of perspectives on bird specimens and artifacts at the Smithsonian, from biomimicry to genomes to non-human kinship networks.

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Research Interests:
History and theory of museums and collections across natural-cultural domains • Multispecies ethnographies and Feminist Science and Technology Studies • Museums as ethnographic field sites • Material culture and biographies of objects • Anthropologies of craft and technique • The impact of emerging technologies on objects and museums, including digital imaging (digitization, 3D modeling) and biotechnology (genetic sampling, biobanking)