Museum History

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. The museum building adjoins the Harvard Museum of Natural History complex on the north side of the main Harvard campus. With 1.2 million objects, the Museum has one of the largest archaeological and ethnological collections in the world, including extensive archives of documents and historic photographs. The collections are heavily used by researchers, descendant communities, Harvard faculty and courses given by universities throughout the region. The museum also has an Education department that serves primary and secondary school students.

Historic Highlights and Departments

Under the Peabody’s second director, Frederic W. Putnam (1875–1909), the museum contributed to professionalizing the emerging field of anthropology. Putnam actively trained students in archaeological methods, and advocated learning from objects—an emphasis that continues to this day. Putnam became Harvard’s first professor of anthropology, and both the Department of Anthropology and Tozzer Library originated in the museum.

Originally called the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, the early mission of the museum was to explore the origins of Native North Americans. Putnam and his students sought to understand the indigenous cultures responsible for building earthen mounds in the Midwest, especially in Ohio. Since there were no laws protecting archaeological resources, Putnam raised funds to purchase important sites, including Ohio’s Serpent Mound. In the 1880s, Peabody staff and associates also began working in Mexico, Central America, and South America, and have been continuously engaged with Maya sites and communities since then. Later generations of Peabody and Harvard anthropologists have worked throughout the world.

Putnam (assisted by a young Franz Boas) was in charge of anthropology exhibits at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, where the  the new discipline of anthropology was first introduced to the general public. The museum’s first ethnographer was Alice Fletcher, who trained and subsequently collaborated with Omaha scholar Francis La Flesche throughout the rest of her career. In 2017 the museum commemorated its’ 150th anniversary with an exhibit called All the World is Here: Harvard’s Peabody Museum and the Invention of American Anthropology, which focuses on the Putnam era.

The Peabody Museum Press has published important works in anthropology since 1888. In 1968, the museum added the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, an active research archive that conducts and promotes studies of the ancient Maya. In 1981 the museum opened its Zooarchaeology Lab, which helps students and researchers identify animal bones from archaeological sites.  The museum’s department of Osteology and Paleoanthropology has been conducting research in human evolutionary biology since 1875, and the museum’s archival staff oversee extensive collections of historic documents and photographs.

The museum has also been a leader in the development of Visual Anthropology, especially the genre of ethnographic film. Pioneering filmmakers Timothy Asch, John Marshall, and Robert Gardner all began their careers at the Peabody. Gardner led a 1961 Harvard-Peabody Expedition to New Guinea that resulted in his first landmark documentary, Dead Birds, and the Peabody sponsored the Marshall family’s work in Namibia, where John Marshall shot N!ai, the Story of a !Kung Woman and other landmark films.  Marshall later founded Documentary Education Resources in nearby Watertown, Ma. In 2007, Professor Robert Gardner established the museum’s Robert Gardner Fellowship in Photography which supports innovative ethnographic photography projects by contemporary visual artists.

In recent decades the museum has increasingly collaborated with members of descendant communities on collections care and handling, exhibits, and research. The museum has one of the largest collections in the U.S. subject to the 1990 Native American Graves Protection & Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), and is actively engaged with tribes from across the nation. The museum partners with the Harvard Native American Program (HUNAP) and other campus groups to provide opportunities and support for Native students and to raise awareness of Indigenous communities and issues around the world.  As a repository of world heritage, the museum aspires to steward the collections with acknowledgement of and respect for the communities from which they were acquired.

Today the museum continues to collect, preserve, and interpret materials from cultures around the world. The collections and our understandings of them evolve as we develop community relationships and as researchers explore new dimensions of humanity’s biological and cultural heritage.

The Harvard Museums of Science and Culture (HMSC) manages a dynamic schedule of public programming for the Peabody, the Harvard Museum of Natural History, the Harvard Herbaria, the Mineralogical and Geological Museum, the Harvard Museum of the Ancient Near East, and Harvard’s Collection of Scientific Instruments. Parking is very limited and public transportation is recommended. There is a subway and bus station in nearby Harvard Square.

View of the Peabody Museum exterior, ca. 1899. PM 2004.24.1828.