Don’t get me wrong. Fieldwork is important and I do my fair share. I was in Papua a few months ago … but more on that another time. Having just finished a substantial piece of work on the ethnographic hafted stone tools of Asia I am convinced that museums represent a vast resource for cultural and anthropological studies that has barely been tapped. This is not a new thing, but what is new is the availability of much of this material in digital form. Which can be accessed from a laptop. While comfortably seated on your posterior.
In the case of hafted stone tools (for example), this is a technology that was extensive at the time of James Cook’s first voyage across the Pacific. It has vanished, but not before examples were collected by travellers to the region, and subsequently donated to museums. My study was prompted by being asked to catalogue a collection of Papuan material (the Hampton Archive) that was donated to the non-profit that I work for (Tracing Patterns Foundation). I began by looking at some museum archives in an attempt to gain an overview of stone tools in the region. I discovered a trove of unpublished material. Some had excellent provenance, some not, but there were more than enough well-documented examples.
Many museums have such material. My personal favourite for this region is the Wereldmuseum. Not only is everything online, many of the images (which are of varying quality) are licensed as Creative Commons CC4.0 (I wish more museums would do this, the income from licensing images is tiny compared with the total budget of a museum and surely not worth the admin time involved in collecting it).
Doing this kind of research is about as low-cost as it comes. For most of it all I needed was an internet connection. I did visit a couple of museums in person, but the only one for which this made a difference to my study was the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford, which has much excellent material on display (see photo above) and very little online.
Great adjuncts for this kind of work are early ethnographic texts that have been digitised and placed online (the Internet Archive and Google Books are the two that come to mind, though there are others). Digitized books are less fun than reading the originals in libraries, but more convenient and (sometimes) searchable.
It helps to have some hands-on experience with the material culture that you are interested in: the more familiarity you have (in my case, textile technology and stone tools) the better you are able to interpret images online. It also helps if you gather and classify the data yourself (or at least part of it), since this way you will be more familiar with the gaps and limitations of the dataset you are working with.
In studies of material culture, language and so on, advanced mathematical tools have come to the fore in recent years. Correlation studies, Matrix Mantel tests, Bayesian methods, Phylogenetic tree building and so on. Making a map of the distribution of the traits you are interested in is a less glamorous procedure, but I have found it as useful or more useful than some of the more advanced techniques. Interesting patterns are often apparent ‘by inspection’. At minimum, you will be able to formulate some hypotheses.
Some people are using GIS. I mostly use Google Maps because it is free (and I am cheap).