HOCEF Guide to Searching


                 link to overview of oceania collections.        link to collections online for specific objects.        link to browse pre-made lists from oceania.

Please note: Our site contains some images – like photos of deceased ancestors and sacred items – that may be sensitive, offensive, or otherwise difficult to see for some people. Please take caution when searching and reach out if you think there are images that should be taken off our public website.

Many of our collection records are still labeled according to the old terms from when they were collected or studied by scholars in the 19th and 20th centuries – including broad terms like “South Seas” or “Polynesia.” Many of these terms are no longer useful, appropriate, or correct. And some may be offensive or discriminatory. The Peabody Museum is committed to addressing these problems, but it can be a slow process with over 1.2 million materials in the collections. Our museum staff are continually updating these records, adding to and improving content. If you have questions, need assistance, or want to give us some suggestions, we’d be happy to hear from you. Reach out to us at hocef@peabody.fas.edu or pmresearch@fas.harvard.edu

Quick Search

The simplest way to search or browse for collections is to enter search terms into the Quick Search tool bar on the left side of the page. It functions similar to a google search – try entering an object name, a country, or a culture group. You can enter single terms or a combination. Similar to Google, if you want words to appear together, use quotations, e.g. “Marshall Islands.” Entering just Marshall Islands without quotes will bring up records that have either Marshall or Islands in the record, not necessarily both. 

If you know the specific collection object number, you can also enter that into Quick Search to pull up its information. So if you’ve been checking out the collections featured in the  Masterpieces of the Peabody Museum Online Exhibition and want to look up the museum record for the Tapa Cloth Figure from Rapa Nui, you can type the number from the image’s caption,  99-12-70/53543, right into Quick Search to find it.



Advanced Search

In general, we recommend sticking with the Quick Search since it is easy to use and will capture the most materials. But, if you would like to focus your search on a specific collection type, such as photographs, click Search on the lefthand menu. This Advanced Search will allow you to combine different terms to find specific materials. The example below will show you all of the photographs from Samoa. It is worth noting that if you tried entering each of these combinations: samoa photo, samoa photograph, or samoa photographic, in the Quick Search instead, each of those will give you different results. So, the advanced search is best if you want to search for only photographs.


Search Terminology and Tips

This is where things get interesting! Problems with terms and language can make it hard to find things in our online database. A few things to keep in mind as you search:

1) Some of our records are out of date or use old place names and spellings.

Many of our collections came from time periods when colonial place names were used by museums and collectors. For example, New Hebrides was the colonial name for the islands that now form the nation of Vanuatu. If you search for Vanuatu in the Quick Search, you’ll come back with 326 individual items, while if you search under its older colonial name of New Hebrides, you’ll see only 235. 
This record was updated in our database to display both Vanuatu and its colonial name, New Hebrides, but not all records have been.
So, make sure you check multiple place names in your own search. If you want to know if we have something from Satawan Atoll, you might have to try different search terms like: Satawan, Nomoi, Mortlock Islands, Chuuk, Truk, Caroline Islands, or Micronesia. Items could be under any one of these names.


2) Records may be inaccurate or incomplete. 

Since our museum collections are so large, not all of the information in our online database has been checked for errors over the years. Some incorrect details written decades ago still remain in our records. 
banana fiber tol.For example, this collection of banana fiber tol from Kosrae lists them as sashes from “Kurai” in our database because staff decades ago had trouble reading the cursive handwriting in the original records. So if you had searched for Kosrae, you wouldn’t have found them. 
Other collections haven’t had someone with knowledge of the Pacific Islands reviewing them. 
samoan bark cloth.Check out this beautiful siapo. Since it was collected in the early 1900s in Fiji, our records had previously described it as a Fijian bark cloth (masi) but based on the design and other clues, it is most likely Samoan. Samoa has been added to this record, but similar scenarios likely exist throughout the collections.  


Samoan bark cloth (siapo) Collected in Fiji, c. 1911. Gift of Dr. R. B. Dixon, 1912. © President and Fellows of Harvard College, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, PM 12-31-70/84109




3) Most of our Oceanic collections currently are documented only in the English language. 

We are working on adding indigenous terms for our collections – words like masi, kapa, ngatu, and siapo instead of bark cloth or tapa – but most of our records use English words. 
banana fiber dohr.For example, this finely woven banana fiber dohr (sometimes spelled tur or tor), comes from Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia. In the museum, we have several, some which might be listed as a sash, belt, cloth, or girdle, documented as from the Caroline Islands or Micronesia. 


Dohr, finely woven banana fiber sash from Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia, pre-1895. Gift of the American Antiquarian Society, 1895. Image © President and Fellows of Harvard College, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, PM 95-20-70/49298

feather and shark tooth breastplate.In addition, some of those Western or English descriptions may not be common words or obvious to many of us today. 
This taumi from Tahiti  is labeled in our database as a “Tahaitian gorget.” Is “gorget” the word you would have thought of when looking at this piece, or searching for it? What would you have called it in English? Breastplate? Neck ornament? Breast ornament? Necklace? (Also notice that “Tahitian” is misspelled!) 

Taumi, feather and shark tooth breastplate from Tahiti, mid-19th century. Gift of the Heirs of David Kimball, 1899. Image © President and Fellows of Harvard College, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, 99-12-70/53613


4) And many of our records don’t use the same terms throughout the database. 

Our collections were added to the museum over many years, by and from many people and reflect different people’s ideas about them. One item may be labeled a canoe, while another similar one may be labeled as a boat, or watercraft, or sailing vessel. 
ceremonial mat from Samoa For example, the museum cares for hundreds of mats woven from across the region, but early museum staff may not have known the difference between a Bwana money mat from Samoa, a Nieded clothing mat from the Marshall Islands, or a Whariki Takapau floor mat from Aotearoa/New Zealand. So, terms like skirt, dress, garment, sash, girdle, cloak, blanket, sleeping mat, floor mat, or cloak may all be used (often incorrectly) to describe various woven mats in the collection. One record may call an ʻie tōga ceremonial mat from Samoa a “Pandanas mat garment” while another calls a similar piece a “Large fiber mat”.

ʻIe toga, fine ceremonial mat from Samoa possibly used during the coronation of King Malietoa “Tami” March 23, 1899. Gift of Mrs. Eugene Wambaugh. Image © President and Fellows of Harvard College, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, PM 36-75-70/343

Notice the variety of terms used to describe these Fijian qato sici: it could be listed as a bangle, bracelet, armlet, jewelry, band, arm ornament. You may have to search with several of these words to find what you are looking for!
We are working on updating all of these collections. In the meantime, when you do your searching online, try a variety of old and new terms, locales, and spellings. 

Catalog Numbers

Museums use catalog numbers to keep track of each individual collection piece. Each piece – whether an object, photograph, or historic letter – receives a unique number that is physically attached to the museum object and creates a link between it and its associated information (like location in storage, what it is, where it came from and how it was acquired). For the Harvard Oceanic Collections Engagement Fellowship, applicants are required to identify which specific collections they will work with, by catalog number. 

You can find the catalog number, also known as the Peabody Number, online either in your collections search list (in the example below, we searched for “tapa beater”) or the individual collections page. In the below right example, the catalog number is 46-78-70/2443.




Still struggling to find what you’re looking for? Or just want some extra assistance?

We have staff to help!
Send us an email and we’ll do our best to answer your questions.

hocef@fas.harvard.edu or pmresearch@fas.harvard.edu