The Peabody Museum was founded in 1866 and is one of the oldest museums in the world devoted to anthropology, the study of ancient and contemporary peoples and cultures. With 1.2 million objects, the Museum has one of the most important archaeological and ethnological—the study of human culture—collections in the world.
Early Contributions to the New Field of Anthropology
In the early days of anthropology—before it was even called anthropology—the museum focused on early human origins. As the field grew, the museum became an influential leader in professionalizing the field and training anthropologists in archaeological excavation techniques, collections development, and the art of learning from close examination of objects—training that continues to this day.
The museum has a long history of documenting cultures of the Americas, starting with its earliest expeditions (1866–1875) exploring prehistoric shell heaps and mound-building cultures in eastern North America. In 1875, Peabody expeditions expanded dramatically to include archaeological efforts across North America, such as excavations at Ohio’s famed Serpent Mound in the 1880s, and into Mexico, Central America, and South America.
By the early 1900s, archaeological and ethnographic work had expanded across the globe. Later excavations included the necropolis at Sito Conte, Panama (1929–1933); Giza, Egypt with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston starting in 1914; the prehistoric site Mt. Carmel in Israel starting in 1929; the prehistoric site Abri Pataud in France starting in 1953; and from 1969—1974, the Chan Chan-Moche Valley Project in Peru, the largest field project in South America up to its time. In 1968, the museum added the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, an active research archive and ongoing recording program for scholars of ancient Maya life. In 1981 the museum opened its Zooarchaeology Lab, which continues to help students and researchers identify animal bones from archaeological sites.
The museum was also engaged in early ethnography--documenting living cultures. In 1882 the first woman joined the museum staff; Alice Fletcher’s work living with and studying the Omaha at their reservation is an ethnographic milestone. Other ethnographic highlights include shaping the anthropology exhibitions at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 where anthropology was first introduced to the public at large, studies in Liberia from 1927 to 1950 resulting in one of the finest collections of masks from the region, and the 1961 Harvard-Peabody New Guinea Expedition lead by Robert Gardner, resulting in the landmark documentary Dead Birds. The early history of the museum including its work at the 1893 Fair will be featured in an exhibition opening April 2017.
In recent years, the museum and the related Department of Anthropology and the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology have continued to make headlines. Examples include archaeological and ethnographic work around the globe, important research in evolutionary biology, student archaeologists in Harvard Yard uncovering evidence of Harvard’s 1655 Indian College (now part of the Peabody Museum’s Digging Veritas exhibition), a Peabody curator extracting DNA from ancient chewed plant material, and another Peabody curator identifying a missing bear claw necklace from the Lewis & Clark expedition. In the field of visual anthropology, the work of the Gardner Fellows in Photography started in 2007 with projects in South Africa, Israel, Brazil, and elsewhere, leading to multiple exhibitions and books published by the Peabody Museum Press.
In the wake of the 1990 Native American Graves Protection & Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), the museum increased consultation with native groups, resulting in changes to the Peabody's operations, particularly the ways in which Native American objects are stored and exhibited. The museum began fruitful collaborations with native groups leading to the current exhibition Wiyohpiyata: Lakota Images of the Contested West, co-curated with a Lakota artist and educator, and a multiyear project to conserve over 100 Alaska Native objects from the collection, including a rare kayak, with a team of Alutiiq consultants.
Today, the museum continues to collect, preserve, and interpret materials from cultures all over the globe. The collections and our understanding of them continue to evolve as community relationships develop and scholars conduct research, revealing new understandings of our collective cultural heritage.