Masterpieces of the Peabody Museum

Maya Wall Panel
Classic Maya Wall Panel

Masterpieces of the Peabody Museum was an exhibtion mounted in 1978, bringing together for the first time many of the museum's most oustanding objects, now presented for the first time online. The following is adapted from the introduction to the exhibit catalog Masterpieces of the Peabody Museum, edited by then-director of the Peabody Museum, C.C. Lamberg-Karlovsky.

This exhibit represents the first time in the 112 years of the museum's existence that some of the most outstanding objects in the collections have been featured in a single exhibition.

In the past the word "masterpiece" has been used to describe European works of art. True art was admitted only in the high cultures where knowledge of natural forms combined with a rational idea to form beauty to the image of man. This attribute was denied to "primitive art." A great deal of tribal art, especially the representational, was regarded as artless and believed to be childlike attempts to portray nature—attempts distorted by ignorance and irrational content.

Today we recognize that the art of the tribal people of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the New World, far from being "primitive," attained levels of aesthetic production at times fully meriting the term "masterpiece." Modern artists were among the first to recognize tribal art as true art. Indeed, it may be said that modern art led to an enlightened appreciation and understanding of tribal art.

The concept of "masterpiece" remains, nevertheless, a subjective quality, an expression of personal opinion. The objects in this exhibition, selected from the rich collections of the Peabody Museum, were chosen by the staff and faculty of the museum and of the Department of Anthropology at Harvard University. Each scholar made a determination about what constitutes a masterpiece based on various aspects of the historical, cultural, and aesthetic attributes of the artifacts.


The descriptions of the masterpieces in this online exhibit are adapted from the scholars who wrote the original essays about the objects—the scholars are identified by their initials:

Marie Jeanne (Monni) Adams—M.A
Carleston S. Coon—C.S.C.
Rosemary Sharp—R.S.
Jeffrey P. Brain—J.P.B.
Ian Graham—I.G.
Edwin L. Wade—E.W.
J.O. Brew—J.O.B.
William Howells—W.H.
Peter S. Wells—P.W.
Wilbert K. Carter—W.C.
Carol F. Jopling—C.J.
John W.M. Whiting—J.W.
Kwang-Chih Chang—K.C.
Marietta B. Joseph—M.J.
Gordon R. Wiley—G.W.
Clemency Coggins—C.C.
David Maybury-Lewis—D.L.
Stephen Williams—S.W.
Geoffrey W. Conrad—G.C.
Tatiana Proskouriakoff—T.P.