Inside the Peabody Museum: January 2014

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Spotlight on the Australia Collections

New Benefits Coming!

Coming up at the Peabody

Spotlight on the Australia Collections

 Dr. Anne Best

Dr. Anne Best's research on the museum's Australia collections will benefit researchers and scholars all over the world. Below: Queensland shield PM 96-25-70/49483.

The Peabody Museum, with the support of the Harvard University Australian Studies Committee, initiated an innovative curatorial program to bring experts from across the globe to study its Australian ethnographic collection. These nearly 1,200 items reflect all facets of Aboriginal Australian life from the late 19th century through today. Peoples living across the Australian continent in diverse environments and circumstances created these items, which range from iconic boomerangs to unusual twined fiber shoes, and 19th-century wooden containers to 20th-century bark paintings. The collection is one of the largest and most significant in the United States, and the work of the museum’s visiting Indigenous Australia Curatorial Fellows (IACFs) is already yielding significant insight into this important material legacy. 

“The collection is really beautifully managed by a very dedicated professional team,” said current IACF Anne Best. She just spent three months in residence examining objects and archival records relating to collections from Queensland, Northern Territory, and unknown locations in Australia. “The Peabody is extraordinarily lucky to have the galleries, storerooms, the archives, and conservation all in one place. That is quite rare.” Her work was meticulous, involving deep looking, close reading, and an expert knowledge of Aboriginal material culture. Trained as an archaeologist, Dr. Best brings a keen focus on material, technique, and aesthetics to her study of the social context of Aboriginal objects and their regional variations, exploring the multiple ways museum collections reflect the complexity of Australian Aboriginal cultures. Dr. Best earned her PhD from the University of Southampton in the U.K. and recently, her research was based at the University of Queensland in Australia. She has also worked with collections at the British Museum, the Australian Museum, and the Pitt Rivers Museum, among other world-class collections.

In her time at the Peabody, Dr. Best made enormous strides in studying ethnographic items and improving museum documentation. “Our first and most important task was to enhance what already existed in terms of documentation,” she explained, adding drily, “It's a form of queensland shieldethnographic housework.” She examined over 350 individual items in great detail, correcting and enhancing records for each. Among her favorites was a large, brightly painted shield from the rainforest region of Queensland (PM 96-25-70/49483). She explained to a visiting class of Harvard undergraduates that its shape, elaboration, and evocatively marred surface carried information on its owner’s regional origin, social status, clan, and more. Another was a necklace of luminous nautilus shell, which Dr. Best brought to the attention of the Peabody’s Conservation Department. Its finely graduated beads are now stabilized as it rests in a custom container (PM 67-9-70/133). In collaboration with the Peabody’s other current IACF, Dr. Shawn Rowlands, Dr. Best used her expertise to reclassify more than a dozen items from the “Australia–unknown location” group into specific cultural and geographic groups. She also uncovered stories of collectors and collecting that are as fascinating as the objects themselves.

Dr. Best will spend the next few months writing up her findings. “Where I can, I’m going to connect Peabody objects with sister objects in other collections. For example, if somebody wants to do a research project on wood containers, they may want to know there are more wood containers in Pitt Rivers, linking this collection to the wider community of other collections. And then I will also link the objects to the sound ethnographic references. And there are some very good ones for Australia.” Dr. Best’s work promises to make a lasting impact on her own scholarship as well as studies of Australian museum collections more broadly.

The ASC and Peabody aspire for fellows not only to enhance museum understandings, but also to create a community of scholar-ambassadors for the Peabody’s Australian materials and Harvard University. Dr. Best and her fellow IACFs will integrate the Peabody’s collections into their own research, sharing their findings with both scholarly and public audiences in the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia itself. The Peabody is tremendously appreciative of their efforts and collegiality, as well as the support of the Australia Studies Committee for this important work.

For more on this program, please see Inside the Peabody Museum-June 2013 edition. The Peabody will share reports from future IACF scholars here. The Peabody's work is ongoing; over the course of the next year, the museum will begin integrating the results of the IACFs' work into the Peabody's records and Collections Online.

—Christina Hodge, Coordinator, Academic Partnerships

New Benefits Coming!membership

A Message from Brian Schubmehl, Assistant Director of Institutional Advancement, Harvard Museums of Science & Culture

In the new year, be sure to open the next edition of this newsletter, as we will be introducing a new membership program that provides free admission and benefits to not only the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology, but also to the Harvard Museum of Natural History, the Harvard Semitic Museum, and the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, all four of which are partners in the the new Harvard Museums of Science & Culture (HMSC).

HMSC members will enjoy access to all four museums with free admission, behind-the-scenes tours, exclusive member events, and opportunities to interact personally with celebrated anthropologists, scientists, archaeologists, artists, and experts from Harvard and around the world.

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



Did you miss any lectures? You can listen to them here or download them to your mobile device through iTunes U. Look for Harvard's Peabody Museum lectures.

Tuesday, February 4

6:00 pm

Harvard Semitic Museum Lecture and Reception

"The Sun Temple of Nefertiti: Sex and Death"

Jacquelyn Williamson, Harvard Divinity School Visiting Scholar


Thursday, February 20

6:00 pm

Public Lecture

"Lost Cities and Landscapes in the Heart of the Assyrian Empire"
Jason Ur, Loeb Associate Professor of Social Sciences, Department of Anthropology, Harvard University

Thursday, March 27

6:00 pm

Gordon R. Willey Lecture

"Forgotten But Not Lost: Unearthing an Ancient Village Preserved by Mexico’s Popocatépetl Volcano"

Gabriela Uruñuela and Patricia Plunket Nagoda, Professors of Anthropology, Universidad de las Américas Puebla, Mexico