Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Cambridge

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The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology is a museum affiliated with Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.

Founded in 1866, the Peabody Museum is one of the oldest and largest museums focusing on anthropological material, and is particularly strong in New World ethnography and archaeology. The Museum is caretaker to over 1.5 million objects, some 900 linear feet of documents, 2,000 maps and site plans, and approximately 300,000 photographs. The Museum is located at 11 Divinity Ave, on the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Mass.


The Museum was founded by a gift from George Peabody, a native of South Danvers (now Peabody), Mass., who became a wealthy financier and is often considered America’s first philanthropist. The Museum opened its first exhibition consisting of a small number of prehistoric artifacts from the Merrimack Valley in Harvard University’s Boylston Hall in 1867. The building that houses the Peabody was built in 1876 and expanded in 1888 and again in 1913.


Peabody Museum is steward to archaeological, ethnographic, osteological, and archival collections that span the globe and cover millions of years of human cultural, social, and biological history. Few collections in the world can match its breadth and depth. Strongest in the cultures of North and South America and the Pacific Islands, the Peabody is also caretaker to important collections from Africa, Europe, and Asia.

  • North America. The Peabody’s archaeological and ethnographic holdings from North America form more than a quarter of its collections. Artifacts from every corner of the continent and spanning 10,000 years make this collection exceptional in its scope. From the earliest excavations in the Northeast and Mimbres collections from the Southwest to the Grace Nicholson Collection of California baskets and the Lewis and Clark Collection, the Peabody boasts a collection that is second to none.
  • Central America. The Museum’s Central American collection is strongest in archaeological materials from eastern Honduras, Nicaragua, lower Central America, the Caribbean islands, and Central Mexico. The Museum hosts an almost unprecedented collection of Maya material culture from Copán, Holmul, Labna, Piedras Negras, and Uaxactun, stone sculptures from Copán, fine artifacts from the Sacred Cenote of Chichén Itza, and 600 plaster casts of monuments at important Central American sites.
  • South America. Some of the Peabody’s earliest accessions—collected by Louis Agassiz and his son Alexander—form the backbone to Peabody’s South American ethnographic collections. Particularly noteworthy are the collection of nineteenth- and twentieth-century featherwork headdresses and ornaments from the Amazon Basin; Andean textiles; and the William Farabee collection of Bolivian and Peruvian ceremonial and domestic objects. Important archaeological collections include Chimu, Nazca, and Moche pottery; Inca and Chimu metalwork; and an exceptional collection of pre-historic-period textiles.
  • Asia. The Museum’s Asian holdings are very fine with one of the earliest collections of objects made and used by the Ainu, Japan’s indigenous people; Japanese and Chinese ceramics and porcelains; colorful textiles made by the Kachin, the tribal peoples living in northeastern Myanmar (Burma) and contiguous areas of India and China, and by the Shan, a people related to the Thai, and Siberian hide costumes and carved wooden household items. Archaeological materials dominate the Asia collections with an extensive collection of excavated artifacts from Tepe Yahya (Iran) and Tarsus (Turkey).
  • Africa. The Museum’s holdings include over 20,000 items in four significant collections. The three principal collections, gathered from Liberia, southern Cameroon, and Uganda during the first half of the twentieth century, include a diverse range of objects used in daily or ritual life. The fourth collection contains more than 200 musical instruments ranging from drums to hand pianos. Archaeological collections are represented by George Reisner’s excavations in Egypt

and Nubia.

  • Oceania. Collected by eighteenth-century Boston merchants, traders, and researchers during their Pacific voyages the 23,000 items of this significant collection include many rare and exceptional pieces. Highlights include Easter Island tapa figures and carved wooden statues; Hawaiian feather capes and helmets; Maori carved door panels, bowls, and human figures; Javanese shadow puppets; and Micronesian canoes and shell jewelry.
  • Europe. In addition to extensive Paleolithic collections from France, especially from the site of Abri Pataud where Cro-Magnon man once lived, there are materials from Neolithic through Iron Age Europe, with the notable collection of the Duchess of Mecklenburg materials from Slovenia. The collection also includes a portion of the French archaeologist/political activist Gabriel de Mortillet’s collections from Central Europe, a “Venus” figurine from the Grimaldi Cave in Italy, and Neolithic stone tools from northwestern Europe.
  • Paintings and Drawing Collections. Numbering nearly 200 paintings and 950 works on paper, the collection of artwork is an important and complementary addition to the object collections. About half, representing the David I. Bushnell, Jr. Collection of American Art, contains works by Alexander de Batz, George Catlin, Charles Bird King, George Gibbs, Edward Kern, John Webber, and over 130 oils, watercolors, and drawings by Seth Eastman, the foremost pictorial historian of native North Americans. There are also painted portraits of Native Americans by E.A. Burbank, some being the only extant representation of the subject. Other significant pieces include the works of Jean Charlot depicting the monumental architecture of Mesoamerica, twentieth-century works by Native American artists, an extensive series of Inuit prints, and thirty-eight works depicting people and places in India and Tibet by Andre Chéronnet Champollion.
  • Archival Collections. The holdings of both the records and photographic archives add inestimable value to the artifact collections. Together they form a rich depository that presents another dimension to the scholarly work of the anthropologists and archaeologists whose collected artifacts reside in the Peabody. The papers and manuscripts housed in the archives include institutional (departmental and Museum) records, special collections, and materials associated with over 70 anthropological/archaeological expeditions, dozens of faculty and researchers, and other research projects. Ranging from daguerreotypes to colored transparencies, photographic images in the Peabody’s collections number about half a million and traverse the archaeology and ethnology of the world, with particular emphasis in those areas where the Peabody’s holdings in material culture are the richest. Major photographic collections include Native American cultures and portraits, Mexico, northern Central America, China and Southwest Asia, Africa, and pre-Columbian objects and art.
  • Osteological Collections. The osteological collections of the Peabody Museum derive from more than eighty countries on six continents and include human and non-human primate remains, fossils, and casts. The greatest strengths are in the Americas, Eurasia, and Africa. Approximately 40 percent of the more than 18,500 human and non-human individuals (MNI) currently represented in the collections are from the United States. The Museum also has sizeable anatomical teaching and hominid cast collections.


Permanent exhibitions

  • Change & Continuity: Hall of the North American Indian. Diverse North American cultures are explored through the objects produced by indigenous peoples of the nineteenth century. The Changes and Continuity exhibit considers historic interactions between native peoples and Europeans during a period of profound social change.
  • "Day of the Dead/Día de los Muertos. The Peabody's exhibition of a Day of the Dead altar or offrenda is located in the Encounters with the Americas gallery. It represents the original Aztec origins of the holiday and the Catholic symbols incorporated into the tradition.
  • Digging Veritas: The Archaeology and History of the Indian College and Student Life at Colonial Harvard. Using archaeological finds from Harvard Yard, historic maps, and more, the Digging Veritas exhibition reveals how students lived at colonial Harvard, and the role of the Indian College in Harvard’s early years.
  • Encounters with the Americas. Encounters explores the native cultures of Latin America before and after 1492, when the first voyage of Christopher Columbus initiated dramatic worldwide changes.
  • Pacific Islands Hall. The Hall features a diverse array of artifacts from the Pacific Islands brought to the Museum by Boston’s maritime merchants.

Temporary exhibitions

  • 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 and became the photographic fiction she titled House of Love.
  • Native Life in the Americas: Artists' Views. Native Life showcases the work of important though not well-known artists who focused on various aspects of Native American life and culture.
  • Storied Walls: Murals of the America. Throughout time and around the world, people have adorned the walls of their homes, palaces, tombs, temples, and government buildings with painted scenes and designs. Storied Walls explores spectacular wall paintings in Arizona, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru.
  • Translating Encounters: Travel and Transformation in the Early Seventeenth Century. Wonder, confusion, and curiosity: just a few of the responses by Africans, Native Americans, and Europeans in the age of exploration, as each struggled to comprehend the other. Inspired by collections of the Peabody Museum, Houghton Library, and the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, this exhibit broadly explores global mobility, encounter, and exchange in colonial encounters among peoples of Europe, Africa, and the Americas.
  • Wiyohpiyata: Lakota Images of the Contested West. Co-curators Castle McLaughlin and Lakota artist Butch Thunder Hawk use ambient sound, motion, scent, and historic and contemporary Plains art to animate nineteenth century Lakota drawings from a warrior’s ledger collected at the Little Bighorn battlefield. This exhibit presents Lakota perspectives on westward expansion while exploring culturally-shaped relationships between words, objects, and images.

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