Peabody Collection: Anthropologists' Delight

'Primitive' Treasures Pose Display Problems

The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology is for so many undergraduates "the place that has the glass flowers." Actually, though, the Peabody doesn't own them at all. Peabody occupies the left hand corner of the red-brick complex that forms the University Museum. The University Museum also contains the Biological Museum also contains the Biological Museum, the Museum of Comparative Zoology and the Minerological Museum, and this has caused all the confusion. It is the Biological Museum that owns the glass flowers.

The staff at Peabody is both amused and exasperated by this misconception on the part of students and the general public alike. Most of the people who make this mistake go through Peabody to get to the glass flowers without even glancing at its vast riches.

Since some of the exhibitions at the Peabody are poorly displayed, one realizes that this isn't entirely the fault of an insensitive public. Yet, the main reason that the Museum's collections do not catch the attention of the casual visitor is simply because most displays are not designed for him. Peabody's exhibits have always been planned primarily for the scholar.

Peabody, the first anthropological museum in America, has collected material for specialized research ever since its founding back in 1866. George Peabody, a philanthropist who emigrated to England after he had amassed his fortune in America from chain-stores and railroading, gave $150,000 to endow a "Museum and Professorship of American Archaeology and Ethnology in connection with Harvard University."

Mr. Peabody's interest in these fields came when the great discoveries about the Neanderthal man increased speculation about the origins of man, but while the great collections of North America and European primitive tools and materials could still be had inexpensively. Led more by an acquisitive instinct for relics of the past than by any definite set of anthropological objectives, the Museum took advantage of the low market.


During its first five years, it hurriedly acquired for its cases in Boylston Hall collections of the Swiss lake-dweller artifacts and Danish archaeological specimens, superb examples which twenty years later could not have been purchased at any price. The Museum even in those days organized expeditions in North America, exploring and exploiting many of the richest mounds in Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee, in the quest for more and more specimens.

From the ship captains and New England merchants, Peabody began to receive treasures of ethnology from the Pacific, most notably the exotic feather capes from Hawaii. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that the Museum started off with the finest anthropological collection in the country and to this day its topmost position cannot easily be challenged.

The Museum's building posed another question. The cases Peabody owned were exhibited in spare corners of Boylston Hall. The amazing objects which the Peabody had gathered from its exploration, purchases, and gifts could not be displayed, or, if they were shown, could barely be seen in the murk outside Boylston's lecture room. Adequate facilities were needed.

In 1875, the Peabody chose its greatest director, Frederick Ward Putnam, who was to remain in command until 1909, and, in the following year, it moved into the first installment of its present home on Divinity Avenue. From the very beginning, the Peabody collection had been poorly displayed because of insufficient financial endowment. As he soon found out, Putnam had to raise funds unendingly to alleviate this grave situation. In fact, the endowment of Peabody was so small that it could barely meet the necessary expenses of administration.

The next segment of the building was added in 1889 and extended the Museum to within sixty feet of the Geological Museum in Agassiz's complex of scientific collections. Yet Putnam was still pressed for space. In his report to the University in 1898, he complained, "The present halls and cases are overcrowded and many interesting collections have to be kept in drawers or stored in the basement awaiting the completion of the building." It was through his determined efforts that money was raised to build a third part to Peabody, to close the gap and join it with the rest of the University Museum.

Though Peabody had expanded externally as much as was possible, within poor utilization of space resulted in a haphazard and cramped arrangement of the collection. The dingy Victorian galleries were poorly lit, and old-fashioned labelling hampered proper study of the exhibits. Especially confusing was its incomplete and inaccurate catalogue of objects in storage. These major problems were not tackled by Director Putnam despite his awareness of the problems. The collection was not yet readily accessible, even to the scholar.

Reynolds Outlines Goals

In 1929, an obstetrician who had become extremely interested in physical anthropology, Dr. Edward Reynolds, was appointed Director of the Museum. In an article written for the Alumni Bulletin, Dr. Reynolds made these comments about the condition of the collections at the Peabody Museum: "I can not avoid concluding that the exhibitions resemble a noveau riche's library, who had arranged his books only by the size and color of their bindings, in contradistinction to that of the scholar, whose library is arranged by subjects, and for utility and progress in study.... In short, this collection, fine as it is, is today of suprisingly little use for teaching." The Museum as a tool for teaching cannot really be called a truly new concept, but Dr. Reynolds' exacting standards for what constituted an educationally clear display led to a better fullfillment of the Museum's research and educational purposes. The Museum was to be no longer an illogical collection of exotic items of anthropological interest but instead was intended to become a vital aid in the training of anthropologists. As Dr. Reynolds said so aptly, "The primary purpose of the Peabody Museum is the advancement of general culture by the creation of a new life interest among many of those who have the advantage of a college education and the training of experts in the science of anthropology."

Exhibits for Scholars, Public

The function of the Peabody Museum in the Cambridge community was further pinpointed by its present director, John Otis Brew, who is also the present holder of the Peabody chair: "We have two kinds of exhibits in the Museum. Since we realize that much of our wonderful collection is of general interest, we show the most flashy material in the large halls, where our explanations are simple and directed to the layman who just wants a background at the level of Anthropology 1. The other type of exhibit is the highly specialized one, the sort of showing that only a very careful general observer could understand. These are designed as study aids for graduate courses and fill the smaller rooms. Their highly technical explanations of what the public would call boring stuff are essential to the training of specialists.

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