420 ways to teach “Pigs For The Ancestors”

Pigs for the Ancestors is an iconic ethnography, taught for decades in introductory courses and graduate seminars alike. Rapport’s theoretical ambition, the richness of highland PNG life, the detail in the ethnography — it all works together to produce an ethnography whose life has exceeded its sell-by date for decades. And now, the University of California San Diego provides 420 new ways to teach it: a massive, open access collection of 420 photos taken by Roy Rappaport across the course of his career.

Not all the pictures are from Papua New Guinea, so I guess technically there aren’t 420 images that you can use when teaching Pigs. But in this case, it is important to emphasize not just quantity, but quality. The pictures are high-quality, and they are very well cataloged: each one has extensive metadata describing when it was taken, and what and who is in each picture. They are organized by topic so you can see, for example, just the pictures with pork in them if that’s what you’re into.

In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll state right away that the people who did this work are friends of mine, so I’m hardly an impartial observer. But it seems to me that collections like this are The Future. As the Internet gets more and more turgid, filled with ad-encrusted crud and unverifiable assertions, carefully curated open access collections like this are so, so welcome.

The Rappaport photos are hardly novel. Museums and libraries all over the world are making their collections available — just check out the institutions participating in the Flickr Commons project. But the key step between availability and use is discovery: making sure people know about all the great resources out there.

That’s hard to do for libraries, for whom just producing digital collections is work enough. We need to use these collections regularly, and credit them when we do use them. It’s only when word of mouth spreads that people will really develop a sense of the many hidden treasures out there available for research and use.

So this week, the next time you need a picture for a powerpoint, why not get this process rolling and use a picture from the Roy Rappaport collection?

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org