Inside the Peabody Museum: March 2011

Fresh Update in Archaeology of Harvard Yard Exhibition

17th century plinth from Harvard YardIn early March, the exhibition  Digging Veritas: The Archaeology and History of the Indian College and Student Life at Colonial Harvard will reveal the latest information gleaned from the excavation and continued research by Harvard students and staff.

Although the exhibition about the archaeology of Harvard Yard opened in 2008, excavations continued in 2009, leading to new discoveries such as architectural elements and other signs of the 17th-century Indian College.

"It’s a working exhibit," explains student co-curator Rachel Bennett. "As we learn new things about the Indian College, we update the exhibit, and students can learn new things about how to curate." Bennett and her fellow student co-curator Tia Ray have been researching, writing, and working with staff curators to update Digging Veritas since summer.

In the final days of the 2009 dig, students uncovered the remains of a 17th-century foundation trench on the parcel where the Indian College once stood. The trench was filled with foundation stones, clay tiles, metal print type, and brick, including a plinth squint (shown above).

"One of the most challenging things was to explain how we're learning more about the Indian College," says Ray. For example, curators had to explain what a plinth squint is, and why it is a significant find. The plinth squint is a decorative brick that would have marked the transition from a thicker lower part of a wall designed to compensate for the changeable New England water table to thinner upper part of a wall. The curators concluded that the brick plinth represented a desire to preserve the Indian College against natural damage with an embellishment, meaning the Indian College was intended as a permanent fixture in the Harvard landscape and a space to be commemorated and celebrated.

Another new feature of the exhibition tells the story of several 17th-century Indian College residents. "Most people don't realize the Indian College was a separate residence hall, rather than a separate college," notes Bennett. Indian College resident John Wampus (Nipmuc) struggled with debt and looked after Nipmuc land rights in the English legal system for his tribe. Another resident, Caleb Cheeshahteamuck (Aquinnah, Wampanoag) was the son of a sachem and the only Native American to graduate Harvard until the 20th century. 

"I gave a lot of thought about what we should write about the present day because I'm a member of Harvard University Native American Program," says Ray, a Navajo. "I think we got it right."

Tangible Things is Part Museum Exhibit, Part Treasure Hunt

Silver head ornament

Tigers, teapots, typewriters, and a hundred-year old tortilla are just a few of the items that can be found in an unusual Harvard exhibition that spans several museums and libraries on the Cambridge campus.

Tangible Things brings together 200 objects that Harvard institutions have collected over the centuries. It invites visitors to consider how and why the objects were categorized in the Western scholarly tradition as art, history, archaeology, anthropology, and more. The exhibition is centered in Harvard's Science Building, at the Special Exhibition Gallery of the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments. Many items on display there and tucked among other museum displays are from the Peabody Museum's collections, including the 19th-century silver crown shown here. With the help of a cell-phone tour, explorers can learn more about each object, whether they found it at the Science building, the Sackler Museum, the Harvard Museum of Natural History, the Semitic Museum, Houghton Library, or the Schlesinger Library/Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

The exhibition is sponsored by the Harvard Arts Initiative, Harvard College Program in General Education, the Office of the Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the Office of the Provost at Harvard University, and the Harvard Art Museums’ Gurel Student Exhibition Fund. The exhibit is also the foundation for the innovative course “Tangible Things: Harvard Collections in World History," and runs through May 29, 2011.

New Exhibition Opens March 2: House of Love: Photographic Fiction, Dayanita Singh

from House of Love. Photo by Dayanita Singh

An image from Being of Darkness in House of Love: Photographic Fiction, Dayanita Singh.

As the Museum’s 2008 Robert Gardner Photography Fellow, Dayanita Singh explored the human condition through images that began as a photographic diary. The work became what Singh calls ”photographic fiction” in the form of this new exhibition and a book. Both may be read as if they were stories that are deliberately elusive. They can't be reduced to specific national or social categories.

Singh has been praised as having "the serious whiff of legend" (Time magazine) and her work has been called "exquisite" and "intimate" and "elegiac" (Telegraph India).

"The images are truly amazing," says Associate Curator of Visual Anthropology Ilisa Barbash. "When Museum staff first unwrapped the package of prints, each one of us responded differently and viscerally to each image. And I know when I see them mounted, I’ll experience them a whole new way."

The phrase “House of Love” refers primarily to the Taj Mahal—but not to a single reality, the Mughal monument. As with other recurring motifs in the photographs, Singh created House of Love to convey a range of meanings—some historical, some personal or idiosyncratic—offering what she describes as “truth inextricable from fiction that functions sometimes like music and sometimes like literature.”

In her work, Dayanita Singh invites visitors to reflect upon the images and to find their own stories. "House of Love is a departure from previous photographic exhibitions at the Peabody Museum," says Barbash. "The recent Spying on the Past exhibition was a scientific exploration with multiple photographic views of archaeological sites. House of Love is much more personal and evocative."

"For example, in House of LoveContinuous Cities is more than a literal representation of different cities and urban landscapes; there are multiple luminous layers. You don’t know where you are--you’re in a tree, in a kitchen, you’re standing by a window--you’re in a place both familiar and unfamiliar." With a smile, Barbash adds, "And part of the excitement is you don’t have to be right. I don’t expect Dayanita needs you to be right. Instead, she wants you to feel something when you look at her work, and you can’t help but do that."

The opening is from 5:00 to 7:00 PM on Wednesday, March 2 at the Museum, and Singh will be present to sign copies of her book, House of Love (Peabody Museum Press/Radius Books). The book will be available for purchase at the event and by emailing, or by calling 617-495-4255.


See what's coming up in the Calendar of Events.



Did you miss this lecture? Listen to the audio.

To Write or Knot? Another Route to Record Keeping in the Ancient Americas (mp3) 

Gary Urton, Dumbarton Oaks Professor of Anthropology, Harvard University More...

March 2

5-7 pm

Exhibition Opening and Reception

House of Love: Photographic Fiction, Dayanita Singh

March 10

5:30 pm

Hallam L. Movius, Jr. Lecture

The Evolution of Big-Game Hunting: Protein, Fat, or Politics?

John D. Speth, Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Anthropology and Curator of North American Archaeology in the Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan

March 19

Noon-1:30 pm or 2:30-4:00 pm

Family Program

Family Fun Saturday Curious About Cuneiform

$5 per child with Peabody Museum admission. Advance reservations required.

March 24

5:30 pm


Adopting and Adapting Writing in Native Nations of the Northeast

Lisa Brooks, Assistant Professor of History and Literature and of Folklore and Mythology, Harvard University

March 27

4-6 pm

Book Launch

The Road to Ruins

Ian Graham, author

March 29

5:30 pm

Gordon R. Willey Lecture

The Teotihuacan Cosmogram and Polity: Update on the
Sacred City and its Three Monuments

Saburo Sugiyama, Professor, International Cultural Studies, Aichi Prefectural University & School of Human Evolution and Social Change