How Big is the Peabody Museum's Collection?
It's big—in fact, one of the biggest—but there's more than one answer, and each one reveals something about how the Peabody and other museums keep track of their collections. The truth is that determining the actual size of a collection is half science and half art.
First, a size comparison: The Peabody Museum often notes that it curates one of the largest collections of anthropological objects in the country. A few institutions, such as the Smithsonian Institution, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology and the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology at Berkeley have similar or larger collections.
At the Peabody, an easy way to determine the collection size is simply to count the catalog records. They include nineteenth-century hand-written ledger books, twentieth-century catalog cards and, since 1984, computer records entered directly into the collections database. By this method of counting, the Peabody has 600,000 objects (not including photograph and paper archival records).
But there is another way to count: one catalog record may actually represent multiple objects (such as two baskets, five ceramic vessels, a box of pottery sherds, a bag of stone flakes, etc.). If we count the physical objects, then the Peabody has 1.2 million objects. Museum staff members who work directly with objects usually prefer this level of counting; if a staffer has to move, or conserve, or exhibit twenty items, it doesn’t really matter if they all have the same catalog number or not. There are still twenty items.
When museum professionals talk about the size of the collection, they usually use the method that for the Peabody results in 1.2 million objects. By comparison, the Smithsonian has 2.5 million, and U-Penn and Berkeley each have around 1 million objects.
But there is even another way to count that give the Peabody an estimated 6 million objects or 12 million objects. When objects are loaned to other museums, staffers often need to record the exact number of individual pieces. So a set of armor may be 14 pieces, and a box of sherds may be 50 objects. If one counts at the individual ceramic sherd level, the Peabody has an estimated 6 million objects, and if one counts at the individual stone flake and animal bone level, the estimate grows to 12 million.
—David K. DeBono Schafer, Senior Collections Manager
For Thanksgiving: The Other Kind of Wild Turkey
The holiday nears, perhaps along with memories of disappointingly dry, tough turkeys of past Thanksgiving meals. Peabody Museum Director Jeffrey Quilter, noting the approaching holiday and the growing interest in raising urban backyard poultry, shared this long lost boozy tip from a notable Peabody archaeologist's wife. She learned how to tenderize tough birds during an expedition to Guatemala.
Samuel K. Lothrop (1892-1965) was a Boston Brahmin, a bon vivant, an internationally known archaeologist, and a “Harvard Man,” through and through. He was a member of the Harvard Class of 1911 and associated with the institution for the rest of his life, most notably as Research Associate and Curator of Andean Archaeology at the Peabody Museum from 1930 to 1958.
Lothrop’s scholarship ranged widely and, in particular, he made great advances in the prehistory of southern Central America. He also was married three times and his second wife, Eleanor, was a particularly gifted writer, herself. Her book, Throw Me a Bone: What Happens When You Marry an Archaeologist (1949), is a wry look at academics, marriage relations, careers, and many other issues of its times.
Jeffrey Frost, a former student of mine, specializes in the archaeology of southern Central America and the Andes and also is a student of the life and times of the Lothrops. He recently discovered this short newspaper article that appeared in the New York Sun, probably sometime in August, 1949.
How to Get Into Day of the Dead Fiesta Without a Ticket
If you missed your chance to pick up Day of the Dead Fiesta tickets for Friday, November 2, you can still get in with your Peabody Museum member card, or--space permitting--dress as your favorite late, great, musical idol in full calavera (skeleton) makeup. Use the hashtag #pmdod to stay on top of Day of the Dead Fiesta Twitter news.