Museums in Motion

Spirits quickened inside certain Harvard museums this winter when the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Jeremy R. Knowles, began...

Spirits quickened inside certain Harvard museums this winter when the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Jeremy R. Knowles, began speaking of his dreams in public. First to the faculty, then to the press, Knowles revealed that he envisions a new public museum to house the Museum of Natural History and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology ("Another Museum Proposed," March-April, page 55). The new museum might be located on land recently acquired by Harvard across the Charles River in Allston, he said. Such a museum might require 100,000 to 200,000 square feet of building space.

Joshua Basseches, executive director of the Harvard Museum of Natural History, with, from left, a P?re DavidÕs deer (extinct in the wild), a caribou, and a fallow deer. The Great Hall of Mammals looks much as it did in the nineteenth century. Something of its feel would be recreated in some portion of a new museum, says Basseches.
Joshua Basseches, executive director of the Harvard Museum of Natural History, with, from left, a Père David's deer (extinct in the wild), a caribou, and a fallow deer. The Great Hall of Mammals looks much as it did in the nineteenth century. Something of its feel would be recreated in some portion of a new museum, says Basseches.
Photograph by John Soares

The proposed new museum was then no more than a wish of the dean's, and so it remains: the Harvard Corporation is a long way from approving even preliminary plans for Allston. But Knowles's dream may well come true. It's a sweet one, many people could agree.

* A new museum would be a major resource for Greater Boston and New England and most likely would be welcomed by the Allston community, where Harvard intends to put up many other buildings.

* The museums that would move into a new facility are now in antiquated, very cramped quarters in a massive, brick Victorian pile--actually three buildings stuck together--in Cambridge, with one entrance on Oxford Street and another on Divinity Avenue. Their keepers would rejoice in some twenty-first-century elbow room, which would benefit collections, visitors, students, and staff in countless ways the keepers are ready to detail.

* The space the museums would vacate is precious real estate near Harvard Yard. It could be recycled for new faculty offices and laboratories. The anthropology department, some of whose faculty now are housed in the Peabody Museum and some in William James Hall, could all be accommodated in the Peabody building. A study the dean has commissioned shows that were his dream to be realized, 100,000 square feet of space would be liberated in the conjoined museums--the 50,000 now used for public exhibits and another 50,000 gained by storing the creatures who would stay behind in Cambridge, the dead ones, in modern stacks.

"There are two kinds of collections in these museums," Knowles told this magazine. "The scholarly collections consist of such things as 3.5 million beetles in drawers. These are needed for research and teaching and must remain in Cambridge, close to the heart of the matter. Other collections are more for public enjoyment and education--the Glass Flowers, for example. They are of no scholarly interest to botanists today, but are part of our natural and cultural history and of lots of interest to the public.

Domestic bull, Bos taurus, this individual called ÒThe Baron of Orford.Ó Louis Agassiz gave the skull to the MCZ, and it is specimen 1 in the osteology catalog.
Domestic bull, Bos taurus, this individual called "The Baron of Orford." Louis Agassiz gave the skull to the MCZ, and it is specimen 1 in the osteology catalog.

Comment and photograph by Rosamond Wolff Purcell

"Access to the exhibit areas of the present museums is not convenient," Knowles added. "The lack of climate control is destroying parts of the collection. Working conditions are improper. Storage is inefficient. My goal is new life for the public end of the museums and revivification and refocusing of the scholarly collections. This can be a tremendous opportunity for opening up our buried treasures to the public."

Remment Koolhaas, professor in the practice of architecture and urban design at the Graduate School of Design, is studying how best to use Harvard's 220 acres of Allston land. He's due to report soon. He is exploring where to put housing, classroom and office buildings, and semipublic structures such as a museum. His work may show that the best site for a new museum is now covered with railroad tracks (for Harvard has acquired tracks, trucking yards, and other awkwardnesses on a former Massachusetts Turnpike Authority property in Allston), and these might take years to disappear. Or Koolhaas's findings may suggest that the project could go forward at a good clip, if the neighbors approve of Harvard's plans. The construction timetable for a new museum is thus unknowable. Meantime, museum staff are getting up steam in Cambridge.

"We have the world upstairs," says Peter Money, gesticulating in his basement office, "and it's a pretty astounding place." An informal, high-energy fellow, Money is director of education at the Harvard Museum of Natural History (HMNH) and puts together programs for the public. He's been on the job a year and a half, came from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (a zoo, natural-history museum, and botanical garden in Tucson), and has more than 30 years' experience in museum education. "The museum's mission is to turn people on to the world around us, its people and cultures, its plant and animal life," he says. "We want to help people understand things better, yes, but our goal is to get them excited and passionate and, in the process, help change attitudes.

"We want to show people a case full of hummingbirds, sure," he continues, "but we don't want to just tell them their Latin names. We want to say to people, 'Feel your chest. Your heart beats about 70 times a minute. A hummingbird heart, when he's working, beats 1,000 times a minute. The lead in the pencil stuck behind my ear is made of the same stuff as a diamond. Boston is sitting on what was once part of Africa.'"

Peter Money, director of education, in a museum classroom used by schoolchildren. He holds an osprey. Above him hangs a presumably life-size model of a Pacific Ocean octopus with arms 16 feet long, made at Yale in the early 1880s primarily of papier-m‰ch?. In the foreground is Seymour (say the name slowly) the Skeleton.
Peter Money, director of education, in a museum classroom used by schoolchildren. He holds an osprey. Above him hangs a presumably life-size model of a Pacific Ocean octopus with arms 16 feet long, made at Yale in the early 1880s primarily of papier-mâché. In the foreground is Seymour (say the name slowly) the Skeleton.
Photograph by John Soares

In 1998 the public museum hired Joshua P. Basseches, M.B.A. '92, to be its new executive director. He had worked as a management consultant to museums, as manager of exhibition projects at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and as an adjunct professor at Bentley College, where he developed and co-taught a course entitled "Business and Not-for-profit Organizations."

"Harvard is world class in teaching and research," says Basseches, "but we are not doing nearly as much as we could and should in presenting that research and our collections to the public. Starting in the 1980s, staff of the various museums began to think how to fix this situation, to create a museum with the same ambition, capacity, and success as one finds on the research side of the University. The Museum of Natural History was formed so that we could have a professional staff more skilled than any of the component museums could have afforded on its own.

"There is no longer as strong a division between fields as there was when these museums were founded," says Basseches. "We will explore ways to develop exhibits that cut across fields. The museum has formidable intellectual resources, with people such as Professor E.O. Wilson [entomology and sociobiology] and Professor Stephen Jay Gould [zoology, geology, invertebrate paleontology] eager to help break new ground in what a public museum can be. Our goal is to create the finest university-based, public, natural-history museum in the country, one that is among the finest of all natural-history museums in the country."

Museum staff concern themselves with three things: collections, exhibits, and education. "The museums together, including the Peabody, have 26 million specimens," says Basseches. "The American Museum of Natural History in New York has 32 million."

Some of the MCZ's curators are not acquiring new material--although spiders, snakes, and fish are rolling in--but plenty is on hand: 62,000 mammalian specimens; 330,000 birds; 400,000 reptiles and amphibians; a million specimens in the invertebrate paleontology department; 1.2 million fish; 7 million insects (including about a million ants, favorites of E.O. Wilson); and 10 million mollusks.

The Mineralogical and Geological Museum has 150,000 rocks. Its early, small, holdings were transformed into a fine research collection by a gift from A.F. Holden, A.B. 1888. Its systematic collection of minerals, with more than 2,000 species, many of them rare and many described in the scientific literature, has become one of the world's best, says curator Carl Francis. The museum also has a strong position, internationally admired, in meteorites.

Asa Gray founded the Botanical Museum, originally called the Museum of Vegetable Products, in 1858, and its present facility opened in 1890. Scientists associated with it have focused on economic botany, the interdisciplinary study of useful plants. They and their students have collected economic products, medicinal plants, artifacts, archaeological materials, pollen, and photographs, and continue to add paleobotanical material, especially Precambrian, containing early life forms. The museum's dried plant and fungal herbarium specimens have been transferred to the Harvard University Herbaria, contained in a nearby building that may itself move as Harvard's reconfiguring of its real estate in the so-called North Precinct progresses. (The Herbaria reached a landmark recently, adding their five-millionth specimen, a trollius from China that augmented the largest collection of Asian plants in the United States.)

"Many of the museums' specimens have history-of-science value because the people who put the collections together over the past 150 years were notable or were doing the best research of their times," says Basseches. The MCZ has a turtle collected by Thoreau, for instance. It has the gun used by pioneer ornithologist Alexander Wilson. The collections are much esteemed by scientists because they contain many "type specimens"--the chosen individual snake, let's say, on which the examining scientist bases the description of a new species, an exemplar hunk of mineral, or the primus inter pares of an orchid species.

The collections also contain material of perennial public appeal, the stuff of exhibits: a pair of pheasants given to George Washington and preserved by pioneer museum-maker Charles Willson Peale; the world's first mounted specimen of Kronosaurus queenslandicus, a 42-foot-long skeleton of a marine reptile that ruled the seas 120 million years ago; and the skull of a giant salt-water crocodile, Crocodylus porosus, that may be the largest skull of a living crocodile species in any collection. (Details of the croc's demise are given in About the Exhibits, a museum pamphlet by Elizabeth Hall and Max Hall, in print for almost 40 years, that describes 21 of the museum's more notable sights. The monster's girth behind the front legs was 11 feet, and he may have been 30 feet long. His conquerors cut his stomach open and found a horse and a quantity of stones weighing about 150 pounds.)

Harvard has rich collections, but parts are at risk. "Specimens need conservation and a climate-controlled environment," says Money. "An animal on display has cracks in its hide. We could have that fixed, but what's the point? Without environmental controls, it will just crack again."

Basseches "has revived the 'changing exhibits' program," says Money. "Now they actually change. This lets us expose the public to different parts of the collection." Orchids: A Story of Seduction opened on Valentine's Day last year. Now up is Beauty on the Wing: The Double Lives of Butterflies (see "Show-offs," January-February, page 104). It is a multifaceted exhibit that in 10 minutes can give even a visitor in a rush sights to remember--a wall of 1,000 beauties chosen from the museum's several hundred thousand lepidoptera. Spend a bit more time and study a large glass case full of live caterpillars being tended by ants. Listen to recordings of the caterpillars' pupal calls and larval grunts. Get a sense of the research now being done in a MCZ laboratory.

One of the museum's missions is to showcase and interpret to the public the scholarly work being done by faculty members. "The whale skeletons hanging from the ceiling in the Great Hall of Mammals are really popular," says Money. "Were we to do an exhibit on whales, we would certainly involve Stephen Palumbi, who is studying whales today." (Palumbi is a professor in the department of organismic and evolutionary biology and curator of marine invertebrates at the MCZ. For an article he wrote about his field work in Bali, see "Empty Nets," March-April, page 48.)

"In exhibitry, we have a long way to go," says Money. "In addition to the Victorian-era display of diversity and profusion, we want to tell cool stories. The butterfly exhibit is much closer to what we want than the hippo with the cracked lip. But it could be still more hands-on, more interactive. We want to offer visitors lots of things, and lots of things to do. And we had to stage the butterflies in a busy corridor, which is awkward. We need better space."

"Exhibits will always be highly collection- and specimen-based," says Basseches. "They may show 200 hummingbirds, for instance, but will convey concepts like biodiversity. This will never be the Boston Museum of Science, but we want to use new media. Yet this is an old building. I'm told we are maxed-out, just as an example, as far as the number of telephone lines we can have here. We have discussed with one scientist the possibility of doing an exhibit of robotic swordfish, which would require a 14-ton tank of water," says Basseches. "That would be very hard to do in this building."

The museum's most popular offering is what is known officially as the Ware Collection of Glass Models of Plants, which belongs to the Botanical Museum and is the only collection of that museum on public display. HMNH expects to have 117,000 visitors this year, up from 110,000 last year, and many of these people will have been lured by the internationally renowned Glass Flowers made by the Blaschka father-and-son team. Heretofore, the 4,300 models were displayed in a third-floor, walk-up gallery open to the stairwell and an adjacent interior gallery. Ten years ago analysis of the models determined that they were profoundly in need of conservation. Those in the outer gallery had suffered especially, due to vibration from the staircase, inadequate climate control, and exposure to ultraviolet light. To properly restore the entire collection will require at least 15,000 conservator hours. Conservators qualified for this work are few, and identifying people to do the job was one of the reasons for a long delay in starting the cleaning and repair; another was debate about where in the museum the restored models would be housed and how many of them need to be on public display. At last, the work has begun. Last fall workers gingerly removed the models in the outer gallery.

The recently spruced-up exhibit of specimens from the Mineralogical and Geological Museum is dominated by an amethyst geode a yard across that weighs 1,600 pounds, a plain-looking rock split asunder to reveal crystals of gemstone quality ("Intoxicating Beauty," September-October 1998, page 96). Some 4,000 of the collection's rocks and rough or cut gems are here to admire, and wonderfully dazzling many of them are. Carl Francis, speaking of the new installation, sees a certain fundamental "schizophrenia in a university museum. The Smithsonian and other traditional museums have gotten away from systematic presentations. In the newly organized mineral display at Harvard, we have used fewer specimens, and lighted them better, in the hope of capturing the public's attention. We don't want to put a textbook on the wall," he continues, "but our galleries ought to tell the truth about what scientists and collection-management staff are all about, and they are concerned with systematics." A current changing exhibit, Romancing the Stone: The Many Facets of Tourmaline, is a sparkling display of geological significance and aesthetic appeal.

Public education is the third preoccupation of museum managers, after collections and exhibits, says Peter Money. He aims to offer plenty of "stuff for the Smith family to do--classes, after-school programs, field trips, community events. In the future, if the city of Quincy has a Family Day, we want to go to Quincy and be there. We are thinking about putting on 'Wild Wednesdays'--programs done not at the museum but in community and recreation centers."

So far as public education goes, says Money, "this museum has more pokers in the fire than anyplace else I've ever worked. On Wednesday afternoons, when admission is free, and on Saturdays and Sundays, we have four 'Discovery Zones' in the museum, each staffed by a volunteer--stations with artifacts and specimens where people can go behind the museum's glass and put their hands on things," says Money. "We have 'Creature Features,' programs for adults and kids, very informal, using live animals--turtles, snakes, frogs--that one can touch, with guidance. In future we want to have 'Investigation Stations' in the galleries, touchy-feely places where visitors can look through microscopes, seem to participate in a fossil dig, do things interactively."

The staff of the education department consisted of only one person before Money came. Now there are six, and that number will increase as programs prosper. There are now 35 trained volunteer gallery guides; someday, says Money, there will be a couple of hundred.

This year he and his colleagues have put most effort into science education for children and teachers. "The programs are much more formal than heretofore and are taught by 'science educators,'" Money explains. "The programs are age-targeted, curriculum-coordinated, and correlated to Massachusetts 'Frameworks' educational standards." They involve exhibits at the Peabody as well as the Museum of Natural History.

A one-hour class in "Animal ABCs" for kindergarten and first grade, or on "The Magnificent Maya" or "Rocks and Minerals" for grades 4 and 5, costs $125 per class of 30 or fewer students, a fee paid by the schools. A two-hour "museum lab" on "New England's Prehistoric Past," or "Human Evolution," or "Reptiles and Amphibians" for grades 6 through 8 is $160 for a class. The museum had not previously offered classes for this age group. Now teachers are asking museum staff to adapt these programs for high-school students. Certainly, say the staff.

All schoolchildren are free to roam, with chaperones, the museums' 27 rooms and see for themselves the more than 12,000 objects on display. HMNH's science educators will work up a special program for children on rainforests, dinosaurs, ancient cultures, or any number of life, earth, or anthropology science topics on request. They offer accredited professional-development workshops for teachers.

Peter Money projects that 24,000 schoolchildren will come to the museum in the year ending June 30 and expects a 40 percent increase in the number of children who have come for a class. "Support from the schools has been very positive," he says, "and the program will produce net income for the museum in time. But we will reach booking capacity in the present facility soon."

Established in 1866 by a gift from George Peabody and housed in its present five-story building since 1877, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology is one of the oldest museums in the world devoted to anthropology. It has four galleries, one devoted to temporary exhibits and now filled with wonderful things from Africa. The aim of the Hall of the North American Indian is, in part, to consider how native people responded to the arrival of Europeans. In addition, it presents a number of captivating dioramas of Indian villages, bird's-eye views of cultures, with people going about their businesses. Here are Navajo, Nez Perce, and Alcut Indians, Sioux with their tipis in a circle, Inuits by the sea, a longhouse filled with Iroquois, Algonquians and their wigwams, Hopis in a village perched on high with a line of dancers performing a ceremony. Another gallery explores native cultures of Mesoamerica before and after Spanish contact. The Pacific Islands Hall retains its Victorian flavor by displaying a profusion of artifacts that are simply named, not interpreted: a carving of a sea spirit, black with white eyes, meant for the prow of a canoe, from the Solomon Islands; a breadfruit splitter; war clubs from New Caledonia; a spear with an obsidian tip from the Admiralty Islands; boomerangs from Australia; barkcloth.

The huge ethnographic collections from North America, Africa, and Oceania are especially fine. The museum has abundant archaeological material brought back by expeditions to mounds in Mississippi, shell heaps in Damariscotta, monuments in Chichén Itzá, and the mud in Harvard Yard. It has splendid ancient Peruvian textiles, artifacts from Neolithic through Iron Age Europe, and Paleolithic and younger collections from the Middle East and Asia. The museum has as well about half a million photographs that provide fascinating testimony about the variety of people on Earth and the ways in which they behave en famille and with the curious archaeologists and ethnographers from the Peabody who have come to visit them.

The museum continues to acquire material from the last two centuries, as well as contemporary pieces that extend the research importance of existing collections. Recently, an alumnus gave the Peabody an extremely valuable collection of American Southwest textiles and pottery dating from the 1960s to the 1980s.

Sixty percent of the collection--most of the archaeological material--is stored in the Peabody Annex, a building in the Oxford Street parking lot that was part of the old high-energy accelerator and that the Peabody was allowed to occupy, temporarily, in the mid 1980s. The building is much used by faculty and students. There one sees open catwalks and three stories of shelf after shelf of prehistoric and early historical material, housed without benefit of climate control.

The other 40 percent of the collection is stored in the museum building proper. Here one finds historical material from the eighteenth through twentieth centuries and the most fragile objects (baskets, for instance), and here the environmental conditions in the storage areas are better.

"We need more and better space," says Rubie S. Watson, Howells director of the Peabody and senior lecturer on anthropology. "To preserve the collection, we need climate control. It contains 5 million objects. Less than 1 percent of that is on display. We need space for students, faculty, outside researchers, and members of indigenous communities to work with the collections. We want to open up the collections.

"Exhibit spaces are impinged upon by offices and classrooms," Watson continues with her version of the refrain. "There are collisions of Harvard classes and touring school groups. For Harvard classes there is inadequate space to bring out collection items for a week of study, say. It's difficult to find a working space for a student preparing a senior thesis.

"In a new museum," says Watson, "our collections could be opened through public programs in ways that are very difficult now." In the exhibit areas, she wants, for instance, to create "visible storage," pull-out drawers covered with Plexiglas. If 10 African masks (of the 600 in the collection) are on display, she wants to show in nearby visible storage "not just the most beautiful masks, but a range from the same area to better explain that culture. That helps visitors appreciate both the aesthetics of objects and their cultural context and helps explain why a university museum wants more than one example of a thing."

Visible storage could enrich the upcoming exhibit of a Peabody treasure--the only extant collection of Native American objects gathered by Lewis and Clark, about 50 items only. The Lewis and Clark bicentennial runs from 2004 through 2006, but the celebration of it will begin in 2003. The museum has undertaken a research project on the collection that will last three years. The material will then be exhibited and a book about it will appear. The exhibit will travel to four to six venues.

"These objects can teach surprising lessons," says Watson. "We often think that the Native Americans whom Lewis and Clark encountered had been relatively isolated from European trade routes. But a hide dress in the collection is decorated with cowrie shells from the Indian Ocean. It contains metal obtained from European fur traders, brass buttons made in Birmingham, England, cloth from England, and thread made in rural factories in New England. Vast trading networks had made an impact on the area before Lewis and Clark traveled through it."

Instead of exhibiting the collection in a classic manner, Watson wants to show these rare and old objects in the context of the larger collection, allowing visitors to explore the museum's holdings using visible storage.

This May, Peabody Museum staff will finish a voyage of discovery of their own. They will complete the inventories of human remains and associated grave goods mandated by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990. Between 1990 and 1995, two to six staff members were dedicated to this work; from 1995 on, 16 to 18 employees (archaeological curatorial assistants, data verifiers, osteologists, and others) have been hard at it. Expenses, paid by the museum and by the Harvard president's office, have amounted to $2.8 million to date. As of a year ago, museum staff had consulted with 337 federally recognized tribes and eight Hawaiian organizations, as well as about 235 Alaskan villages and corporations. Were these encounters rancorous?

"NAGPRA has brought the museum into sustained contact with Native Americans, and that has been very good," says Watson. "We talk to each other, which is not always easy, in a way that has not been possible for a very long time. It is important to reconnect with the people whose cultural heritage is represented in the museum collections.

"Native American officials and tribal delegations come for two- or three-day visits," says Watson. "They look, they examine. They want to see that we respect these collections. We manifest respect by the storage conditions we provide. Sometimes Native American visitors make offerings to objects in the collections, honoring them because they believe that the objects contain powerful spiritual forces. We accommodate their requests as best we can, but we find it very difficult in this building to provide suitable space in which they can do this.

Rubie Watson, director of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, in a museum storage area. More than 99 percent of the collection is buried treasure, not on display. Around her are objects from Asia. The baskets in the foreground were made by the Pomo Indians of northern California. The Òsun basketÓ or Òdowry basketÓ at right is decorated with feathers from a red-headed woodpecker, and the dark tufts at the edge are quail plumes. The basket was collected at an unknown date and donated to the Peabody in 1905 by George G. Heye.
Rubie Watson, director of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, in a museum storage area. More than 99 percent of the collection is buried treasure, not on display. Around her are objects from Asia. The baskets in the foreground were made by the Pomo Indians of northern California. The "sun basket" or "dowry basket" at right is decorated with feathers from a red-headed woodpecker, and the dark tufts at the edge are quail plumes. The basket was collected at an unknown date and donated to the Peabody in 1905 by George G. Heye.

"In recent years," says Watson, "we have come to feel that we are engaged with Native Americans in a process of co-curation." The Peabody's strategic plan for the coming 10 years, just drafted, resolves that the museum "will strengthen its established relationships with indigenous peoples. Co-curation projects in which indigenous researchers and artists work with museum curators to interpret the collections will bring a unique and fresh perspective to all of our efforts--research, teaching, and public programs."

Watson hopes in the next few years to explore with Basseches and his staff "new ways to make our collections and Harvard research available in public programs." She wants the Peabody to "reinvent the idea of a university research museum. In the twenty-first century such a museum must serve many constituencies, not just a small group of senior scholars. We must engage or re-engage our far-flung constituencies in the collections we have here, partly through digital imaging and use of the Internet. We have to make people feel welcome and help them to appreciate the research significance of these collections, and that's the great challenge."

The Peabody would share a new museum building with the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Most of the zoological collection would stay put in Cambridge. All of the mineralogical and geological collections, the Glass Flowers, and the Peabody's collections would move to Allston. The relatively small holdings of the Semitic Museum--some 50,000 objects--that are now housed at 6 Divinity Avenue might move across the river as well, according to Lawrence E. Stager, Dorot professor of the archaeology of Israel and director of the Semitic Museum. Only the study collections, such as the cuneiform tablets, would remain behind.

The exact governance of a new museum remains undetermined. Basseches reports to an advisory board consisting of professor of biological oceanography James J. McCarthy, director of the MCZ; Gray professor of systematic botany Donald H. Pfister, curator of the Farlow Library and Herbarium; Fisher professor of natural history Andrew H. Knoll, curator of the paleobotanical collections in the Harvard University Herbaria; Butler professor of environmental studies Michael B. McElroy; and Nancy L. Maull, executive dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

The name of the new museum might be the Harvard Museum of Cultural and Natural History. That has a familiar ring. The three natural-history museums and the Peabody announced in 1995 that they had merged in their public-museum aspects, and that was their new name. They would collaborate on exhibition planning, on an expanded range of other public programs, on membership drives, and on fundraising. They might even see whether they could connect their separate fire-alarm systems.

Two and a half years later came a divorce. Watson and McCarthy announced that the advisory board of the Harvard Museum of Cultural and Natural History had decided it would be in the best interests of all concerned for the Peabody to withdraw from formal participation and regain its "independence with regard to public programs and public identity." The change would enable the Peabody to focus on the repatriation of Native American art and artifacts, said a press release. What had driven these museums apart?

The executive director of the new collaborative entity, hired from outside in 1994, turned out to be an inept manager, lacked vision, and was indecisive about what she wanted to do, according to several witnesses. "There are a lot of alpha males in the museum," says another observer, "and she was not ready to stand up to them." She antagonized other museum personnel, and they put their backs up. Several staff members sent a letter to the directors of the four participating museums appealing for relief. A management consultant was hired. A second letter a year later was an expression of no confidence and precipitated the executive director's departure. It had the further effect of alienating some staff members who thought it purported to represent the views of all staff when, in fact, they didn't want to be associated with a letter that seemed to them a personal attack and unprofessional. The person who disseminated the letter was dressed down by a representative of the dean. Everyone was instructed not to speak to the press. An atmosphere of snake pit descended and lingered in the offices and corridors of the old museum complex.

But the trouble was not mainly a matter of staffing. The divorce was largely over exhibits, says Rubie Watson. When the museums married, each surrendered sole control of its public-exhibition space. But "anthropologists need to be deeply involved in how material in the Peabody's collections is shown to the public," says Watson. "Exhibits must be culturally sensitive."

Harvard's anthropologists take this matter to heart, believing that a misstep in a Peabody exhibit could reflect badly not only on the museum, but on the field of anthropology and on themselves individually. There came to be fear among them that a governance structure was being built at the museums that would make it impossible for them to oversee how cultural material is exhibited.

"The faculty and curatorial staff associated with the other museums do not have the same concerns," says Watson. "As we all know, there is a big difference between exhibiting 10 shamans' masks and 10 butterflies."

Watson awaits the time when people planning the new museum in Allston get to the part about planning exhibits. "That work can be complicated, very time-consuming, and expensive to implement," she says. "At that point, we will all work together to seriously consider co-curation issues surrounding Native American collections. The prospect of a new museum is indeed very exciting, but the Peabody wants to retain intellectual control over the exhibition of its collections."

When these museums step up to the altar a second time, they will likely have in hand a different prenuptial agreement.

Read more articles by: Christopher Reed

You might also like

John Manning Appointed Interim Provost

Harvard Law School dean moves to central administration

Facebook’s Failures

Author and tech journalist Jeff Horwitz speaks at Harvard.

Kevin Young Named 2024 Harvard Arts Medalist

Museum director and poet to be honored April 24

Most popular

Harvard Files Amicus Brief in Graduate Student Unionization Case

The University argues that the relationship between graduate students and universities should remain academic, not managerial, and student labor unions would “damage private sector graduate education.”

Labor Litigator

Attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan takes on the app economy.

A Postmodern Youth

Tahmima Anam’s Bengal trilogy finds a resting place.

More to explore

Photograph of Winthrop Bell 1910

Winthrop Bell

Brief life of a philosopher and spy: 1884-1965

Illustration of people talking to each other with colorful thought bubbles above their heads

Talking about Talking

Fostering healthy disagreement

Vacationing with a Purpose

New England “summer camps” for adults