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The State of Bead Research Today

I was going to deliver this at "Whatís New in Bead Research" at Bead Expo 2002. However, the session went overtime and I dropped the idea. This is a purely personal look at this topic. I invite others to consider it as well.

Where is bead research today? To answer that we need to do two things. One, we must have a goal in mind to see how closely we are reaching it. Secondly, we need a way of measuring our progress toward that goal.

Where would bead research be in the early 21st century if Horace Beck, A.J. Arkell, Thea Elisabeth Havernick, William Orchard, and Gustavus Eisen had belonged to something like the Beads-L discussion group early in the 20th century?

What should our goal be? I would say that bead research aspires to be a tool widely accepted and employed in the social sciences. It may never become a discipline in its own rights, but its value should be recognized in unraveling the story of humankind.

A friend recently remarked that museums donít pay much attention to beads. It would be a sign of success if they did, but I think museums are too conservative to be in the vanguard of acceptance of bead research.

I would look at academic institutions for the first signs of open reception to our cause. Professors interested in beads teach students and they, in turn, teach others.

In North America we are in our second or third generation of bead researchers. Most of them can trace their lineage to Kenneth Kidd, Charles Fairbanks, or Roderick Sprague. Most are also members (even officers) of the Society for Historical Archaeology, the key group in this region that understands that beads are crucial evidence of trade and other activities.

India, too, is in its second generation of bead researchers. There is a handful of young people with or working towards their doctorates who recognize the value of beads and are doing some very interesting work along these lines. Elsewhere in Asia, we now have people interested in beads were none were before in Korea, Japan, China, and Southeast Asia.

The most advanced place in this regard is Central and Eastern Europe. Of the five research pioneers, only one, Thea Elisabeth Haevernick, left this sort of legacy. However, it has been very powerful, and most bead researchers in this part of the world are women, unlike those in North America.

Another way to judge the acceptance of bead research is to see how analytical laboratories have become interested in the subject. Not long ago it was impossible or extremely expensive to have glass beads analyzed. Today there are three laboratories in the USA, Canada, and France that are working with bead researchers (including myself) to help unravel the story of glass beads. This is a vital advance.

We can also look at the state of bead research institutions. Both bead museums (in Glendale AZ and Washington DC) have recently moved into bigger or better quarters and both are attracting many visitors.

The Bead Study Trust of the UK is doing well. Their newsletter under the editorship of Ian Glover and Majorie Hutchinson has become an important vehicle for the publication of good research articles.

The Society of Bead Researchers is also conducting good work. Again, the publications are in the forefront. BEADS is the only peer-reviewed journal in its field and the only one publishing color photos. Although it was behind schedule for a while, its intrepid editor, Karlis Karklins, has now gotten it back on track. The Forum is also an important publication. Karlis took over its editorship from me and has now passed it on to Michelle Pfeiffer

When I began working on this talk I was going to say that one of these institutions, the Center for the Study of Beadwork, had lapsed. However, at Santa Fe its founder, Alice Scherer, told me that she plans to revive it, so we can look forward to that.

And the Center for Bead Research is also doing fine, thank you. Of these institutions, the CBR is really the only one that has wholeheartedly embraced the Internet (it's where you are now). The Internet has fulfilled the promises it made when I began TheBeadSite.com. It has made my work much more efficient, greatly widened its message, and even allows me to work when I am half way around the world (I am still holding my breath until I become a billionaire).

 So, much progress has been made. This is especially evident when you consider that the bead research "movement" is only a few decades old. What do I hope for in the future?

For one thing, researchers must strive to keep the work both scientific and centered on humankind. The first is not so that it might be accepted by academia, but because it is the surest path toward real understanding. The second recognizes that beads are humanly made artifacts and keeps our minds on people rather than just little perforated objects.

I would also make a plea for more and better use of the Internet by bead research organizations. It has certainly made a difference to the Center for Bead Research. A lot of bead dealers are making good use of the Web, and so should research groups. It is a lot of work, to be sure, but the results are worth it.

As I said at the beginning, I welcome others to contemplate this topic. If you have an opinion, I'd be glad to post it here. Write me and tell me what you think.

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