Inside the Peabody Museum: May 2010

How Do You Move a 21-Foot Kayak? 

move kayak test
kayak move

We’ve all done it, purchased an item and then discovered we couldn’t get it on the elevator, or up the stairs, or through the door. So what do museums do when they have to move a large item in the collections? The Peabody is hoping to do some conservation work on several kayaks in the collection. To do that, conservators and collections staff must move them out of a storage area and into a work space.

The Peabody Museum has four kayaks (baidakas) in its collections, including single-hatch kayaks, a rare three-hatch kayak, and the only known surviving Alutiiq war kayak. The largest of the kayaks, a rare Russian baidarka that seats three people, is just over 21 feet long and nearly 30 inches wide. It’s currently on the third floor, and the work space will be on the first floor.

Museum staff weren’t sure of the best route. Would it fit around the stairs? Could they lower it with rigging down through the Lobby? Should they reverse the original path the kayak took to the third floor, bypassing the stairs altogether and moving through a little-used third floor window to a waiting cherry picker outside so it could be lowered two stories down?

The only solution was a series of tests. Conservators T. Rose Holdcraft, Scott Fulton, and Judy Jungels first fashioned a homemade stand-in for the kayak, a device that looked like a 21-foot shish kabob. It was composed of an aluminum rod for length, and some strategically placed foam board triangles to mimic the kayak’s girth. After maneuvering the device around awhile, Holdcraft and Fulton determined they needed another test model that mimicked the kayak’s shape and surface area better. The second model, shown here, was 2” longer than the actual baidarka, with a more refined interior and foam struts for reinforcement. Conservators wrapped the whole exterior in a foam “skin” and welded it to the base with a hot air gun. They outfitted it with two carrying straps. Five staffers managed the move with the improved model successfully, and Holdcraft was very pleased to avoid the out-the-window-and-into-the-cherrypicker route. She plans to supervise professional movers handling the rest when the big day comes.

A Wampanoag Home in Harvard Yard

Wetu in Harvard Yard

Building projects in Harvard Yard are unusual, and this April, a particularly unusual building was erected in the Yard. A member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe led Native Harvard students and others in constructing a wetu (the Wampanoag word for “home” or "house") in Harvard Yard.

wetu is a dome-shaped traditional home of the Wampanoag. If you think it looks like a wigwam, you are right; wigwam is the Abenaki word for “home.” Wetus and wigwams are similarly constructed and were built by many other Northeastern tribes including the Abenaki, Delaware, Maleseet, and Nipmuc.

wetu could be small and round or very large and long, accommodating an extended family or several families. The frame is arched saplings bound together. The whole structure is covered with bark or cattails on the outside with a hole in the dome’s center to release smoke from cooking fires below. Inside, the rush mats would line the structure, dyed in shades of black and red, woven in traditional family designs passed down from one generation to the next. Wetus generally had a long bench for people to sleep on and a fire in the center. Goods were stored under the benches and hung on pegs on the walls. The low round shape of the wetu and its insulating mats work like a convection oven to keep the wetu evenly warm even in January.

The Wampanoag lived in villages of wetus concentrated near the coast in the summer for fishing and planting. After the harvest, they moved inland and separated into smaller winter hunting camps of extended families. The smaller round wetu was typical in summer; the long wetu, in winter.

Harvard Yard’s small round wetu is positioned near the site of Harvard’s original Indian College, built in 1655. Harvard’s Charter of 1650 dedicated the institution to "the education of the English & Indian Youth in knowledge and godliness” and five Native students attended the Harvard Indian College. The construction of the wetu in Harvard Yard commemorates the 360th anniversary of Harvard’s Charter.

The wetu construction is also part of Harvard University’s annual Arts First, a four-day student arts festival each year during the first week of May, which is the culmination of a year's worth of student arts activity. The festival is sponsored by Harvard's Board of Overseers and involves over 2000 students in hundreds of concerts, plays, dance performances, and exhibitions. It’s one of the largest student arts festivals in the United States. The wetu will remain on view through May 3.

Museum Awarded $215,000 NEH Grant to Put Historic Photographs Online

Albania Survey

Hundreds of one-of-a-kind ethnographic and archaeological photos from around the world will be put online for the public and researchers, thanks to a new $215,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The Peabody Museum photographic archive is a treasure trove of late 19th- to early 20th-century photography, featuring indigenous peoples and world cultures. Over time, the photographic collections have developed into a premier resource for national and international research.

 “This grant gives us the ability to complete the preservation and access of the Museum’s core negative collection,” says Senior Archivist India Spartz. “It includes our oldest and most fragile images.”

The Peabody Museum will now begin the second phase of its long-term goal to preserve and make its entire photo archive publically accessible. One year ago, the Museum completed a multi-year (2006–2009) NEH Preservation and Access grant that allowed more than 30,000 images from the Museum’s core negative collection to be digitized, catalogued, and uploaded to the web, ending the first phase of scanning the Peabody’s remarkable photo archive. The core negative collection can now be searched at the Museum’s Collections Online database. The new grant will fund scanning of more than 25,000 remaining core negatives, a process that will include re-housing and cataloguing the negatives, and mounting the images online. Completing this work will reduce the need for handling the originals.