Sunday, March 14, 2010

Museum Review: Harvard's Peabody Museum and the Development of Ethnology

In any anthropology museum, the exhibits can ironically reveal more about the curators and ethnographers than the depicted cultures; the choice of artifacts and the manner in which they are displayed evidence prevailing attitudes towards the exhibit's subjects. By examining museum collections, we therefore come to understand the theoretical foundations on which displays of culture are based. Because its present curators have retained some historical collections in their original forms, the Peabody Museum demonstrates the evolution of anthropology as a discipline.

Most of the pieces making up the exhibit on Australian aboriginal cultures had been added to the collection during the late 19th century. These pieces demonstrate the romanticism of "the other" that often accompanied the evolutionary approach to anthropology, the prevailing school of anthropology at the time. Early anthropologists were fascinated with the "war-like" aspects of "savage" cultures and thus selected artifacts that portrayed their subjects in this light. Evolutionary anthropologist Edward Tylor wrote (1873)

...'one set of savages is like another.' How true a generalization this is, any Ethnological Museum may show. Examine for instance the edged and pointed instruments in such a collection; the inventory includes hatchet, adze, chisel, knife, saw, scraper, awl, needle, spear, and arrow-head and of these most of all belong with only differences of detail to to races the most various (p.31).

It is true that all cultures utilize tools and weapons (including, obviously, modern western cultures). However, Tylor failed to recognize that the exhibits in ethnographic museums are inherently bound to the biases of the ethnographer. For example, the museum's Australian display includes solely weapons and self-defensive objects, such as shields. The evolutionists chose to only exhibit tools and weapons because these artifacts confirmed their hypotheses that small-scale societies are primitive and savage. The museum's early artifacts also have no descriptions, which further demonstrates the evolutionary anthropologists' sensationalist approach. Rather than exploring the complex cultural meanings behind each object, the lack of description allows the viewer to (and the ethnographer) to project his/her own ideas of exoticism onto the culture from which the object came.

The display of Pacific-Oceanic artifacts aquired during the early to mid 20th century differs markedly. These artifacts are shown with descriptions of their users, and of their cultural significance. For example, the plaque next to a Balinese shadow puppet reads, "the shadow plays reflect the life-cycle and present the conflict between good and evil." The narrative attached to this object shows these displays to be more objectively informative than those of the late 19th century. However, although the above statement does not present a moral dichotomy, whereby "western" cultural practices are revered and those of "savages" are sensationalized and condemned, it seems somewhat generalized. To state the meaning of a cultural practice in one sentence does not do justice to the personal meaning that every individual participant internalizes in its execution. As cultural anthropology Franz Boas (1920) wrote,

"'[Ethnographers]...begin to be interested in the question of the way in which the individual reacts to his whole social environment, and to the differences of opinion and of mode of action...we refrain from the attempt to solve the fundamental problem of the general development of civilization until we have been able to unravel the processes that are going on under our eyes" (p. 102).

The Pacific-Oceanic display manifests Boas' idea of cultural relativism in its infancy; although it does not completely abandon the generalizations that characterize the evolutionist approach, the display attempts to share the cultural significance of artifacts and practices from the perspective of the society under observation.

The displays from Meso-America dig one layer deeper in the complexity of their interpretation by providing plaques with statements from the people whom they depict. In the huipil display, a plaque quotes a weaver, Margarita Vasquez Gomez, who said she began to weave because of the Virgin Mary. Gomez stated, "I asked [Mary] to teach me, to put knowledge in my head and heart; because I liked her clothes and wanted to wear the same." Thus, in addition to objective descriptions of the objects and their meanings, the display adds an element of subjective experience. Through this combination of the objective and subjective, the viewer begins to comprehend the greater cultural significance (i.e. its effect on individual members of a group) of the artifact. Later ethnographers such as Ruth Benedict and Edward Sapir exemplify attempts to understand the personal experience of their subjects. Benedict's work on "psychological types" in the southwest Pueblos (1930) and Sapir's studies of Hopi language (1939) capture the essence of ethnographic attempts to understand the culture from an "insider" perspective. In exploring the psychology and language of their subjects, Benedict and Sapir identified a new element of culture: the mindset of the individual. Benedict and Sapir thus established a new frontier in ethnographic exploration, of which the Peabody's Meso-American exhibit is an example.

The Native American exhibit includes elements of a more current form of anthropological study: the ethnographic examination of one's own culture. The exhibit, "It is Autumn," was created by Bernard Perley, a Native American artist and anthropologist. With this exhibit, Perley uses his anthropological training to study and portray his own culture. Perley's work epitomizes the successful application of cultural relativism to the museum setting; rather than relying on second-hand reports of an ethnographer to understand Native American culture, museum visitors hear the voices of the subjects themselves.

Modern-day anthropologists John Monaghan and Peter Just (2000) wrote, "not only are we constantly engaged in recording 'customs and manners' of people around the world, we are constantly bringing our appreciation of local knowledge to bear on a more general understanding of what it means to be a human being" (p. 21). Monaghan and Just's words articulate the modern ethnographic practice of using the knowledge and experience gained from studying "the other" to explore the common human experience. From examining our shared humanity, we gain a new perspective on our own cultures, and ultimately on ourselves, a pursuit in which museums can aid us. The Peabody Museum gives insight into the progression of trends in anthropology, from a reductionist and biased evaluation of other cultures, to the study of culture from an insider's perspective, to the blending of researcher and subject.

Check out current exhibits at the Peabody!!!

Posted by Shannon Ward, '12


Benedict, R. (1930). Psychological Types in the Cultures of the Southwest. Personality and Culture (pp. 209-219). New York: International Congress of Americanists.

Boas, F. (1920). The Methods of Ethnography. American Anthropologist, 22, 99-105.

Monaghan, J., & Just, P. Social and Cultural Anthropology: a Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford.

Sapir, E. (1939). The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language. In L. Spier (ed.), Language, Culture, and Personality: essays in memory of Edward Sapir (pp. 75-103). Menasha, WI: Sapir Publication Fund.

Tylor, E. (1873). The Science of Culture. In Primitive Culture (pp. 1-26). New York: H. Holt and Co.

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