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common ground

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act
Fall/Winter 1995, vol. 7(3)

Online Archive

*  An Epimethean View of the Future at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University

(photo) Edward Halealoha Ayau, Hawaiian heritage activist.

"Until the 1960s, Indian children grew up playing "Cowboys and Indians," and more than likely, they wanted to be the cowboys. They never wanted to be anthropologists, however, and today there are less than 70 Indians in the profession."

Rosita Worl

by Barbara Isaac

If viewing the past is likened to looking northwards down the Nile, then deciphering the future must be seen as an attempt to navigate the Sudd, the floating mass of waterweed that obstructs the upper reaches from which the Nile springs. The way travelled is clear enough, but the future, except perhaps for the immediate stretch ahead, is an interwoven tangle of unknowns.

Faced with a task as stupendous as the one demanded by NAGPRA, museum official and tribal member alike peer into this future, endeavoring to clarify the way ahead. Even though the legislation prescribes an identical route for all museums, the ends of the journey may not be the same, and no prediction for the Peabody will necessarily apply to other museums.

In the past I have hesitated to offer such a prediction because to do so is a daunting and presumptuous task. However, since the staff of the National Park Service has been unerringly patient with our numerous telephone calls, my sense of gratitude has overridden my judgement. And now, after six weeks of thought, I am even less sure of what lies ahead. So I take Epimetheus as the model to follow, "always looking behind him to see what had happened, till he really learnt to know now and then what would happen next," as Charles Kingsley wrote in The Water Babies.

The history of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology is such that existing attributes and conditions will significantly affect its future. The first is, quite simply, one of size. It is not that great size is a prerequisite for survival but, like a stranded whale, it does not make for an easy disposition.

The collections at the Peabody are gargantuan. One of the byproducts of the NAGPRA inventory process has been to clarify the numbers of North American items in our care (themselves a fraction of the whole). Under our eyes these have increased, in the case of human remains, from an estimated 7,000 to about 10,000, and multiplied, in the case of archeological objects, by a factor of ten from an estimated 800,000 to 8 million.

To those who can't understand why the staff cannot exactly enumerate the collections, the answer is that, although our registration and documentation have always been thorough, to keep running totals-by varied classificatory systems, of different accessions and types of objects from across the world, through 36 catalogue registers and thousands of catalogue cards-was never seen as important, and indeed never was until we needed to present an inventory as defined by NAGPRA.

But the size of our collections relates intimately to the second factor affecting our future: our mission. This is as important to a museum as a lodestar is to our Nile navigator. Collections can be administered exclusively and inclusively with perhaps a direct relationship between large size and exclusivity. The Peabody is from foundation and of necessity a research museum (its staff can never exhibit more than a small fraction of what is held). Its mission holds that "concern for education at all levels should characterize and influence every aspect of the Peabody Museum."

Implicit is the sense that our collections are held in trust. Despite Harvard's image as a bastion of privilege and despite the size of its collections, the Peabody is not an exclusive museum and this trust is not seen as an exclusive one. Since new storage facilities were completed in 1986, collections management staff have made every effort to accommodate visits and research requests from all and every possible constituent. There is a real and palpable sense amongst the staff that this trust is to be practiced both on behalf of the larger institution of Harvard University, which presently holds title to the collections and spends a large sum each year in properly maintaining them, as well as on behalf of those communities from whom the collections came. Again, to quote from our mission: "The Peabody Museum has a special role and responsibility . . . for developing closer relationships with Native American peoples."

The dedication of the staff to serving the needs of those outside the museum has created a record of past behavior that informs my hope for the future. The Peabody did not wait for NAGPRA in order to address problematic issues. In 1972, 39 individual skeletal remains were conveyed to the Narragansett for reburial; in 1976, despite no legal obligation on the part of the Peabody, collections of national importance were returned to Mexico; in 1989, the Sacred Pole was repatriated at the request of the Omaha. I would argue that over the years the Peabody, supported by Harvard's administrators, has shown a thoughtful and responsible attitude not only towards its collections, but to the interests of those diverse peoples who also have claims that need to be considered.

Another factor that has had an immediate and urgent effect on the museum has been that, during the five years from mid-1991 to mid-1996, Neil Rudenstine, the president of Harvard, has seen fit to make funding available to meet, if possible, the NAGPRA deadlines. The conditional is invoked here since the original estimate of funding, itself substantial, was based on the numbers of what we thought we had rather than what we have now discovered as a result of the funded work. The eventual financial burden will be enormous.

Is it possible for the museum to continue its course with only gentle adjustments into the next century? Some adjustments are certainly required. These are suggested by existing anxieties, caused by the following conditions.

The first is related to the Peabody's staffing structure. As a university museum its director and curators are senior faculty with full time teaching responsibilities. Despite the importance of the collections, there is no faculty member, with the exception of the associate curator of comparative ethnology, for whom the collections are the primary responsibility, for whom the first and foremost interest is potential research opportunities and the need to engage elders, scholars, and artists from the wider tribal or international communities--as well as academics and students--with the objects remaining in our care. This has left the museum without full-time champions totally dedicated to its long-term development, without which its cultural and humanistic potential cannot be realized.

This is not to say that the museum hasn't been excellently served by past and present directors. Our present achievements testify to that; but in being asked to look at the future it is a combination of this fact with others that gives cause for concern.

The Peabody is not a local museum growing out of neighborhood support, nor is it a state or nationally funded museum. Yet because of its size, its antiquity, and the quality of its holdings, both cultural and archival, the Peabody may correctly be regarded as a national treasure. Under NAGPRA guidelines it sent out summaries of collections to all 756 of the recognized tribes. In addition, it holds objects that are affiliated to many groups that were terminated or have never received recognition.

The breadth of the holdings therefore places this museum, along with several other large university institutions, in a situation where it is essential for staff to consult with tribes across the country. In this it has a national responsibility but not a nationally supported budget. In fact a proposal for funding a portion of the crucial inventory of human remains and associated archeological objects had to be turned down by the National Park Service, along with many others, due to lack of funding by the federal government. This means it is highly unlikely that the inventory process can be finished in 1995.

It becomes apparent that the museum's future relationship with tribes--whether that immediately mandated by NAGPRA or post-repatriation, allowing the full and appropriate use of the collections still housed in the museum--will be equally difficult to administer if the staff continue under the same extreme pressures as they do today. With only a modest endowment in relation to the huge size of the collections, the museum is dependent on a larger academic institution that has to mediate among several urgent educational priorities. Even if future directors and staff continue to fulfil the stated mission and foster access to the collections, if the endowment and budget remain at present levels, it will become increasingly difficult to meet the requirements of all our constituents in a timely fashion despite our very best attempts.

Nonetheless, however difficult, the requirements of NAGPRA will eventually be met and the view that the museum is a charnel house and that it closets the spoils of an unjust history will become untenable. Yet, once these charges are nullified by the appropriate return of human remains and other sensitive objects, there will still be no defensible future for the museum if the interests of tribal groups cannot be actively engaged with the collections that remain. Such an engagement will happen only if telephone requests, letters, and visits can continue to be processed promptly and respectfully.

One change that is already underway is in the type of access offered: I have emphasized that access should be general and open, but it is necessary to add that not all access will be equal. There are some areas that should be accorded privacy. Helping the director and staff to define these is part of the responsibilities we expect from our visitors. Allowing boundaries to be drawn is no more than what the university already accords to other segments of the population such as professors whose papers enter the Harvard archives.

Being what I am, a pragmatic Anglo Saxon female of middling years, I cannot predict all the specific reasons that lie behind any one individual or group of individuals wanting to consult over what is contained in our shelves and archives. In the past this has ranged from a Chumash singer seeking information on regalia to be worn while celebrating the return of condors to the wild, to a filming of the Feejee mermaid for Japanese TV viewers. But it is not necessary to predict these needs. What the importance of our collections may be to those who experience them should be defined and continually redefined by the users.

For me, there is no sense of property, censorship, or ownership, but rather an understanding, old-fashioned perhaps, that to enjoy something can make it one's own without depriving others of the same experience--and as something is enjoyed so it becomes imbued and enriched with greater and greater meaning. So many objects in museums have been decontextualized from all but the most impoverished of frameworks that it is a major challenge to bring them back into connection with the real (dangerous word!). This is a challenge for future tribal members and anthropologists that is appreciated at the Peabody and that we hope, with our help, will be met.

Even if the Peabody were to return half of the Native American collections, the balance still to be curated for North America and the rest of the world would be extremely large and there is nothing to prevent it from growing in a governed way. There will continue to be an avoidance of items acquired unethically. But the ongoing vitality of North American Indian and indigenous cultures elsewhere ensures that museums have a responsibility (if they believe in their missions) to acquire new collections. The Peabody has just received a bequest of 1,200 items that will significantly expand the southwestern collections, particularly for items made between 1950 and 1980. Only about five objects fall under the provisions of NAGPRA, presumably reflecting the new and enlightened attitudes towards what it is appropriate to acquire.

Finally one of the greatest pleasures and potentials for change during the last years has been the involvement of local Native Americans--helping us on our repatriation committee; creating exhibits (three have been mounted recently, with staff assistance: "Cayoni: Traditional Creek Wood Carving," on the work of Joe Johns; "Enduring Rhythms: Songs and Dance of the Pueblo Indians," curated by Louise Naranjo in 1993; and this year "The Children of Changing Woman," by Ernestine Cody Begay); and collating and checking records for input into the database.

Early on there was outraged glee when it was discovered, during the perusal of some ancient records, that a sacred object had been illicitly carried out of a pueblo in a loaf of bread! Since then, the students and the staff have been involved in wide-ranging discussions that have not avoided the harder issues of museum and tribal responsibility during and after repatriation (see reference). Vigorous debate has been carried out with honesty and respect on all sides, thus offering a means of developing appropriate procedures--the museum's stated mission mediated by a constituency that is at once Harvard and tribal.

To those observers who question whether the Peabody will still be around 100 years from now (the irony of the question is not lost on me) the answer is a resounding yes.


Collaborative Management. Paper by Anne-Marie Victor-Howe, Kate McHale, Kathy Skelly, Patrick Tafoya presented at a panel on indigenous curation, American Anthropological Association, December 1994.

For more information, contact Barbara Isaac, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, 11 Divinity Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02138, (617) 495-2248, fax (617) 495-7535.