Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay has appointed Jane Pickering as the new director of the Harvard Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Gay announced in an email to museum affiliates Tuesday.
Pickering’s five-year term as the museum’s director will begin in July. She has served as the executive director of the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture since 2013, where she helped to improve collaboration between the six museums that fall under the FAS’s purview, according to Gay’s email. Pickering has also served in curatorial and directorial roles at museums at Yale, Oxford, and MIT.
In 2016, President Barack Obama appointed Pickering to the National Museum and Library Services Board, which helps select National Medals recipients.
“She has thought deeply about the contributions and role of the university museum within the academy, the museum field, and our wider society,” Gay wrote.
Pickering will take over leadership of the Peabody as it faces a high-profile lawsuit from Tamara K. Lanier, a Connecticut woman who alleges the museum profits from 19th century daguerreotype photos of two of her ancestors, who were slaves at the time. The images — commissioned by Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz in 1850 in an attempt to prove a scientific theory of white superiority — are thought to be some of the earliest photos of American slaves in existence.
In an interview last month, University President Lawrence S. Bacow said the University does not profit off the images, which are public domain, and argued that “the law is on our side” in the suit. The museum receives around 10 requests per year to produce a high resolution image of the daguerreotypes, for which it charges $15 each, according to Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane.
Gay wrote in her email that, though FAS and the museum are already committed to “responsibly stewarding” the Peabody’s artifacts, they plan on “thinking in new ways” about the ethical responsibilities that come with holding its collections. The Peabody houses 1.2 million objects primarily from the Americas and the Pacific Islands.
“We need to consider how we engage with the communities from which these objects derive, how we grapple with difficult legacies like colonialism,” she wrote. “These considerations are accompanied by the real practical challenges of conserving and providing access to the collection.”
The email also announced the formation of a new Faculty Executive Committee of the museum concurrent with Pickering’s appointment. The group — which will report directly to Gay — is charged with formulating a new “institutional vision” for the Peabody’s collections.
“As Harvard looks critically at our own history and at the ethical, intellectual, and physical dimensions of stewarding this invaluable repository of human culture, I look forward to having Jane as a key partner and guide for me and other leaders at the University,” Gay wrote.
Gay will soon commence a search for Pickering’s replacement at HMSC.
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