Harvard does not want you to know where the Peabody Museum’s annex is.
Housed in a decommissioned particle accelerator, the metal floors and monochrome racks of the annex are more reminiscent of a Home Depot than a world-renowned anthropology museum. The racks stretch on in both directions, housing millions of artifacts. Looking through the grated floors, it’s easy to imagine how this 20,000 square-foot-annex is home to almost all of the Peabody’s collection — less than a quarter of one percent of its objects are actually on display. In the view of the Peabody, the value of the artifacts demands that the location of the annex be kept secret.
Diana D. Loren, senior curator of the Peabody Museum, and Jennifer L. Poulsen, collections steward, guide us around the annex on a frigid Thursday afternoon. As we weave in and out of the endless shelves, they point out decorative bowls, ceramic figurines, trays full of ancient rocks, and tools that date to before Homo sapiens existed. On the end of each rack hangs a small map showing where each artifact originates.
Behind the tall metal racks sit small desks covered with tablecloths of thin cushioned plastic, where nine collections assistants work to catalogue the nearly one-third of the collection that the museum has yet to document. Within arm’s reach of the desks are yet smaller racks that hold wooden trays, which provide the collections assistants their work for the day.
Ornate vases and painted pots sit along the edges of the annex. Other artifacts, however, are stored less carefully: Cardboard boxes sit on top of the racks and plastic milk crates line a curved wall, blanketed in dust. Plastic trash bags bulge from the holes of the milk crates, seemingly untouched for years.
But despite all the relics held there, few know the annex — and the cavernous collection housed within its walls — even exists.
Both in its exhibits and its annex, the Peabody stores objects with complicated histories and uncertain futures. Founded in 1866, the Museum obtained many of its early accessions during a period of imperialism and colonialism; its collections today contain the spoils of that legacy.
Amid an ongoing lawsuit contesting the Peabody Museum’s possession of a series of daguerreotypes that depict two enslaved people named Renty and Delia, scholars and activists alike have focused their attention on the Peabody’s collection and acquisition practices. For years, the museum itself has done work to grapple with the history of its objects and return or repatriate some of them proactively. But the daguerreotypes central to the lawsuit were only discovered in the Peabody’s collection in 1976 — a discovery that raises questions about what other objects may languish uncataloged and anonymous in the boxes, racks, and milk crates the Peabody secrets away.
Though the nine collections assistants, seated at their padded desks amidst the dense array of shelves, work at a prodigious pace to document the thousands of artifacts left uncatalogued, their priorities at times diverge from those of the Native communities, post-colonial nations, and people like Tamara K. Lanier — the plaintiff of the daguerreotype lawsuit and descendent of Renty and Delia — who may seek to reclaim objects possessed by the museum. The Peabody, after all, is an academic museum: In its effort to catalogue its collection, it prioritizes the research and teaching needs of the University community it serves.
“Stewardship” — the careful and responsible management of objects entrusted to a museum — is often hailed as the purpose of archaeological institutions like the Peabody. But given the historical power imbalances that in many instances granted the museum its collections, many question whether the Peabody ought to be a steward at all.
In 1866, the Civil War had just come to a close and American westward expansion was beginning again in earnest.
The period of Reconstruction, as it were, coincided with a renewed period of construction at Harvard University. 1866 was the year that George Peabody donated $150,000 — about $2,400,000 in today’s currency — to create an archaeology museum dedicated to “the accumulation of material for the proper understanding of the condition of the early inhabitants of America,” according to F.W. Putnam, the Museum’s first and longest-serving director.
When the museum opened after a decade of preparation in 1877, it needed artifacts to display. To fill the shelves of its new museum, Harvard funded expeditions around the globe.
Thus, the early history of the Peabody was defined by two aspects of colonial archaeology more broadly: the Museum’s inherent power over the people who owned the objects it desired and its impulse to collect as many objects as possible.
Matthew J. Liebmann, one of the most prominent figures in Harvard’s Anthropology department, teaches a course called “Can We Know Our Past?” that seeks to answer many of the questions archaeology raises. Once a teacher in South Dakota and a repatriation officer, he is now a professor and archaeologist who works with contemporary indigenous groups.
Because of Harvard’s “reputation,” Liebmann explains, the Peabody could obtain the artifacts it wanted from “countries that were not as economically developed as the U.S.” with relative ease.
“Harvard researchers certainly enjoyed a lot of latitude and privilege, often by permit-granting authorities of the state,” he says. “So they could go to countries in Central America and South America and get permits that would allow them to legally export those artifacts back to the US.”
The majority of the Peabody’s collection was acquired prior to 1930 by virtue of this latitude — taking artifacts from the American West and South America through colonial methodologies.
A competitive hunger for more and more items defined archaeological museums of the time. Liebmann explains that Harvard faced competition from museums like the American Museum of Natural History and the Field Museum in Chicago to acquire “museum-quality” collections.
Populations of Native American communities reached their lowest levels between 1890 and 1910, and at that time, American anthropologists and some Native Americans thought that many of these communities would not survive into the next century.
“There was a real salvage mentality to it,” Liebmann says. Experts were no longer only searching for archeological remains but also ethnographic artifacts, “before those tribes were all gone and there was nothing left to collect.”
Eventually, the Peabody acquired so many objects that it started to run out of room to house them all.
“We sort of slowed down the effort,” Poulsen recalls. “So we’re not actively seeking acquisitions; we’re not actively going to different parts of the world to acquire new material. The pace has slowed in a really deliberate way so that we can carefully steward what we have.”
As the Museum’s collections continued to expand throughout the mid-20th century, albeit at a slower rate than before, the Peabody outgrew its storage space at 11 Divinity Ave. — the land allocated to serve George Peabody’s donation, where the Museum stands today.
In the mid-1980s, facing an overflowing collection, the Museum moved a large portion of its artifacts to the annex, the space it shares with the old particle accelerator, a lab where high-energy physics research still occurs to this day. More than half of the artifacts that the Peabody possesses are stored in this building.
Many decades later, the Peabody still owns an annex full of objects it obtained during the rapid collection of the colonial era. The museum is still not done cataloguing these objects, and even once they are catalogued, questions of to whom they should belong and where they should go are often unclear.
In the annex, collections technicians Sarah N. Johnson and Zachary J. Williams spend hours at a time assigning accession numbers to trays of artifacts, photographing them, and adding them to the online database. Sitting at desks dwarfed by the towering racks of artifacts that surround their workspaces, they strive to close the gap between the number of artifacts the Museum has and the number that is catalogued.
Spending eight hours a day in a windowless warehouse amid ancient fragments might sound boring to some, but to Williams it’s quite the opposite.
“What’s exciting is that our day to day varies so much working in a place like this,” he says. “I started my day looking at images of Moroccan teeth and bones, and then I moved over and we did a little caste move with Mayan objects, and then I’ll be starting another collection in Massachusetts.”
According to Poulson, “the standard for museums is not to have 100 percent catalogued. But our hope is that we have 100 percent accessible to researchers teaching,” she says. Given the size of the collection, it is sometimes more efficient to track trays of artifacts rather than each individual object.
In order to reach this goal, Jane Pickering, the director of the Peabody Museum who was appointed in July 2019, says that the Museum has “a moratorium on new acquisitions, because we do have a significant backlog.” With this moratorium, cataloguing strategy and cataloguing itself take priority.
What the Museum decides to catalogue next is based on a number of considerations. Loren describes this process as a “moving continuum.”
“We work through priorities together, thinking about upcoming research, different issues happening within the discipline, if there’s a need, like if there’s a researcher or faculty member interested in a certain area,” she says. For example, when the National Museum of Brazil was decimated by a fire in 2018, the collections staff focused its attention on cataloguing Brazilian artifacts.
But this strategy — prioritizing the academic concerns of archaeologists at Harvard and around the world — leaves some items unattended.
Blending in with the back wall of the annex are the more than 60 red, black, and blue milk crates, filled with plastic and cloth bags. Some crates are brimming with crumpled newspapers that cushion the artifacts.
Poulson explains that these collections were obtained in 2015 by donation from a man named Edward P. Lanning, a distinguished archaeologist who worked extensively in South America.
“The majority of these collections, I believe, are from Colombia, and I think there’s some Ecuador as well mixed in,” Poulson says.
The dusty crates are stacked three high, and they are filled with artifacts that have not yet been shelved, catalogued, inventoried, or moved from the bags where they currently reside. “Some of these cloth bags look like they’re probably from the fifties,” Poulson says, standing in the narrow space between the crates and the rest of the artifacts.
“These collections came to us in this state. And obviously, when we contrast the care that they have right now with care of the row objects we saw the other day, there’s room for improvement,” Poulson explains when we ask her later. “My biggest concern always is that we’re going to be at risk of losing data if we don’t make a change soon.” The museum has set aside money in its budget for the next fiscal year to “rehouse” the artifacts into more appropriate storage.
These objects have been at the museum since 2015, which Poulson calls a “short while in museum time.” Although five years is small in comparison to the lifetime of many of the objects in the Peabody, the dust on the milk crates continues to accumulate.
There currently is no effort to return the items to Colombia and Ecuador. “There wasn’t any compelling reason why Colombia or Ecuador were asking for them back at this time,” Poulson says. “If there was any contested ownership, we would obviously never take it.”
But while they sit uncatalogued in the annex, it would likely be impossible for any group from Colombia or Ecuador to even mount a challenge — or that they would even know that the objects reside in Harvard’s annex at all.
In addition to the uncatalogued objects that sit quietly in the annex, the Peabody is also home to some high-profile items that demand more immediate attention. It is dealing with these objects in a variety of ways — working to return and repatriate them in some cases, and continuing to claim ownership over them in others.
For years, the Peabody has worked to repatriate its Native American funerary items. In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act — NAGPRA for short — a policy that requires institutions that receive federal funding to return Native American “cultural items” to their owners’ descendants. The Peabody has a department committed to the repatriation of these objects.
The museum acquired the Native American artifacts that it holds in a number of ways — excavations, donations — but many also leveraged power imbalances.
Liebmann explains, for example, that, “in the early 20th century, when Native American communities were really under extreme economic duress, there were times when people sold things to museums, in part because they themselves were starving and needed to put food on the table.”
During the process of NAGPRA repatriation, Liebmann says, the Peabody produced inventories of the collections they had catalogued. “And then they sent out summaries of those inventories to all the tribes in the U.S. saying, ‘This is what we have.’”
Depending on the cooperation, or lack thereof, of archeological institutions, this process can be fraught. However, Liebmann lauds the Peabody for its commitment to NAGPRA.
Prior to accepting his position with the University, Liebmann helped Native American tribes file repatriation claims under NAGPRA. The Peabody, he recalls, was among the most cooperative archaeological institutions he worked with. “They were totally proactive, responsive. They were really the most accommodating staff that we worked with,” he says.
Christopher C. Toya, the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Jemez Indian Reservation, is in charge of the protection of artifacts and cultural resources on Jemez land and, like Liebmann, has dealt with many museums throughout the NAGPRA repatriation process.
Since Toya assumed his position in 2004, he says he has interacted with the Peabody regularly. The repatriation process with the museum occurred “exactly how it was meant to,” Toya says, typically he has secured the return of the objects within a few months.
Toya adds that other museums are not as responsible and proactive as the Peabody with NAGPRA repatriation, recalling an instance when a museum simply refused to give items up, despite the law.
“It was a shame. Our tribal leaders had gone up for the repatriation visit at the museum. And our elders and our tribal leaders were up there,” Toya says. “They made no mistake, the objects were from Jemez Pueblo. They were distinct, it even said so in the catalogues that they were from Jemez Pueblo, but they didn't want to give them up.”
Even though NAGPRA protects material culture from exploitation and enforces repatriation legally, it only applies to very specific objects. This leaves little to no accountability for the return of other culturally sensitive objects that descendent communities may lay claim to.
“There’s this whole other category of artifacts that are not subject to NAGPRA: human remains and artifacts that are not from Native American nations, that are from other people,” says Caitlin G.D. Hopkins, a Harvard lecturer on History who specializes in material culture studies.
Hopkins explains the story of a 17-year-old boy named Steaurma Jantjes who was put on display as part of an 1860s anthropological exhibition in Boston on men from different parts of Africa.
The boy ended his own life after a year in the exhibition. Jefferies Wyman, who created the exhibit with the Harvard Medical School faculty, “dissected [his body], turned him into a medical specimen, articulated his skeleton and took a death mask” — or a plaster casting — “of his face,” Hopkins says. “So far, as far as I know, the Peabody Museum has not made any concessions for repatriation or formal acknowledgement of those human remains and artifacts that don’t fall under NAGPRA.”
These death masks remain in the Peabody annex to this day.
The ongoing lawsuit contesting the museum’s ownership of the daguerreotypes depicting Renty and Delia marks another point of divergence from the Peabody’s NAGPRA practices.
“The Peabody has fought against [returning the images], as has Harvard as well, by leveraging property law and exploiting the fact that because slaves could not own property when these images were taken, the descendants and ancestors of the slaves have no legal right to these images,” says Meredith N. McKinney, a Harvard Extension School student and an activist fighting for the Museum to hand over ownership of the images to Lanier.
Still other objects fall outside NAGPRA, including the Peabody’s international artifacts. Even UNESCO now prohibits the taking of artifacts from their countries of origin, the Peabody does not return international artifact acquisitions that predate those laws. As a result, the museum has kept the its collections taken from around the world — even the Colombian and Ecuadorian items stored in the annex’s milk crates.
Loren explains that if artifacts are requested by their country of origin, then a “conversation” takes place. But the last artifact that was returned to an international partner predates both Poulson and Loren’s time at the Peabody — some twenty-plus years.
In looking at the difference between the treatment of objects that fall in and out of the bounds of NAGPRA, it seems that the Peabody’s treatment of them is dictated largely by the laws the museum is compelled to follow. But perhaps the future of “responsible stewardship” depends upon considerations that transcend mere legal compliance.
In September 2019, Dean of Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay created the Peabody Museum’s Faculty Executive Committee in an attempt to answer these questions.
The purpose of the committee is “less about the law than it is about thinking about what’s the ethical and right thing to do,” says Pickering. She also says the highly controversial daguerreotypes are included in the committee’s purview as they have been designated as a “sensitive collection.”
Liebmann, who chairs the committee, says that it is planning to “try to draft some policy suggestions on how to deal with these traumatic legacy collections.” The committee is currently still in the “discussion stages.”
The committee is using a critical eye to reevaluate the ethics of how the Peabody acquired much of its collection and how its stewardship of these objects should change in the future. However, what the committee considers worthy of review is subjective — much like the priorities of what should be catalogued, repatriated, and displayed. “One of the things that we’ve discussed in the committee is… what we’re going to identify as problematic and what is not, which really depends on your perspective,” Liebmann says.
“There are certainly people out there who would say that museums like the Peabody are just inherently problematic because they are strewn with the spoils of colonialism, which is true,” he continues. “We’re all trying to figure out how to deal with the legacy of colonialism that has shaped not just Harvard, but America.”
Liebmann believes that it should not take a lawsuit to “identify something as problematic.” So, although Poulson, Loren, and Liebmann agree that the committee was not created in response to the daguerreotype lawsuit, part of the committee’s task is to identify which artifacts have a troublesome history before a lawsuit identifies it for them. “The daguerreotypes are one of many problematic collections that the Peabody holds, and we were aware of that before the daguerreotypes lawsuit,” Liebmann says.
“We’re starting to look back critically on the history of archeology, coming out of colonialist studies, thinking about how to understand peoples from around the world,” Loren says. “Anthropologists believe it is their responsibility to collect that information. We can look back on that with a very critical eye now. And certainly we have, both within our institutions, and others have done so as well as we continue to move forward.”
But some — like Harvard Extension School student Meredith N. McKinney, an activist fighting for the Peabody to turn over the contested daguerreotypes to Lanier — believe that looking back with a critical eye is not enough.
McKinney claims that the Peabody anointed itself “the ethical stewards of these images, specifically of Renty and Delia, that have a family ancestor coming forward and saying, ‘Please stop showing these images of my family.’” The Crimson reported in December that the Peabody has considered sharing the stories of these images in a more public way; McKinney, however, believes that the Museum should not.
The lawsuit together with the formation of the Executive Committee hints at a possible turning point in beliefs about ethical stewardship at Harvard and in archaeological studies at large.
Although Harvard is not currently willing to comply with Lanier’s requests, it is taking more actions to address responsible stewardship than before. Liebmann says that the Faculty Executive Committee itself is unprecedented in Peabody history. Change often occurs slowly — on “museum time” — at Harvard, but the Committee is “thinking deeply about ethics and stewardship and heritage and how we balance the various different constituencies,” Liebmann says.
He emphasizes that the way the museum obtained many of its objects was wrong — but that morality becomes much blurrier when thinking about the future rather than the past. “You could never ever do that today,” he says of the museum’s imperialist acquisition practices. “It wouldn’t happen and shouldn’t happen for lots of different reasons. But the question is, what do we do with those things that remain in our collections?”
It seems these objects’ uncertain future has its roots in questions about the very purpose of an archaeology museum — whether it is to facilitate access to these objects for academics, to keep them in a safe and secure environment, to display them to the public, or to return them to the descendents of the people they belonged to or the people they depict.
As the Peabody works to answer these questions, the dusty milk crates, the objects labelled for NAGPRA repatriation, the “death masks” of 17-year-old Steaurma Jantjes, and the photographs of Renty and Delia — among millions of other objects — continue to sit and wait.
— Magazine writer Maya H. McDougall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @mayamcdougall2.
— Magazine writer Garrett W. O’Brien can be reached at garrett.o’email@example.com or on Twitter @GarrettObrien17.