Loyola University Chicago

College of Arts & Sciences

Spotlight On: Catherine Nichols

Catherine Nichols, Advanced Lecturer in Anthropology and Director of the May Weber Ethnographic Study Collection, recently published Exchanging Objects: Nineteenth-Century Museum Anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution.

This week’s Faculty Friday spotlight, published once a month during the summer, shines on Catherine Nichols, PhD, Advanced Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences, who has published Exchanging Objects: Nineteenth-Century Museum Anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution (Berghahn Books, 2021). The book traces the often unexpected routes of museum objects or “specimens” categorized by curators as duplicates, as they were exchanged with other museums at home and abroad, as well as with small local institutions such as public libraries, colleges, and schools in the late nineteenth century.

Nichols’ book focuses on the role of the Smithsonian Institution in specimen exchange during the mid-to-late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For her, it was and continues to be a project that poses fascinating questions that only can be answered by digging deep into institutional archives and object collections. By telling museum histories not only through the collections that enter museums, but by the objects that leave them, Exchanging Objects argues for understanding museums as dynamic archives.

“Catherine Nichols’ book is an important contribution to scholarship and ultimately to curators and museum audiences,” says Peter J. Schraeder, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “In a time when anthropologists and museum professionals consider the ethical, cultural, and political implications of both acquisition and sharing, her scholarship and her own work with the May Weber archive fosters a deeper understanding of past museum practice that will help to inform practices in contemporary institutions.”

Nichols’s broader research and teaching agenda focuses on museums and material culture. Drawing on her curatorial experience and her training as a museum ethnographer, she is particularly interested in how the curation and management of museum collections intersects with scientific ethics. Her research expertise is focused on the practice of specimen exchange—exploring how and why natural history and anthropology museums traded and redistributed objects from their collections. Rather than studying the accumulative nature of museums, she is interested in what can be learned about museums, particularly within the contexts of science, history, and politics, by examining the objects that leave them. Moreover, she argues that historical evidence related to specimen exchange can inform contemporary debates about the repatriation and restitution of museum objects that were “collected” from various regions of the world under the pretext of colonialism. 

Nichols continues to publish on specimen exchange and its practice and history at  the Smithsonian Institution and Chicago’s Field Museum. At Loyola, she directs the May Weber Ethnographic Study Collection, a 2,800-object collection of global art from Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Oceania used for research and teaching, located on the fourth floor of Mundelein Center. Nichols particularly enjoys working with students on museum and material culture-based research projects.