Located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as part of the Harvard University campus, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology is one of America’s oldest and largest archaeological museums. The museum is home to one of the most impressive collections of human history artifacts in the world, with more than 3,000 objects on public display and over 1.4 million in total under its care.
The Peabody Museum was founded in 1866, with money from a trust designated as a gift to the university by noted philanthropist George Peabody. The first exhibition under Peabody’s trust was presented in the university’s Boylston Hall in 1867, a decade prior to the completion of the museum’s permanent home at Divinity Avenue. As the museum pre-dates the establishment of anthropology as a field of study, its early work and collections were influential in shaping the field’s professional aims and output. Throughout the years, archaeological and ethnographic endeavors sponsored by the museum have uncovered artifacts at famed sites such as Ohio’s Serpent Mound, the necropolis at Sito Conte, Panama, and the Chan Chan-Moche Valley Project in Peru.
The museum’s main hall features three permanent exhibits as well as a number of rotating special exhibitions from the permanent museum collection.
Change & Continuity: Hall of the North American Indian showcases the cultural objects of indigenous Americans, both prior to the arrival of Europeans in the West and up to the present day. The diversity of Native American cultures is emphasized, with works from tribes in the Northeast, Southeast, Southwest, Plains, Plateau, Coastal, Arctic, and Subarctic regions represented. Exhibits consider the conflict and social change of the early interactions with European settlers as well as the continuing legacy of contemporary Native American culture.
The Encounters with the Americas gallery highlights the works of native Latin American cultures in the eras before and after Christopher Columbus’ expeditions. Focusing on the Classic Maya and Postclassic Aztec civilizations, the exhibit explores the responses of these civilizations to the social and ecological challenges of a post-Columbus world and shows how the struggles continue to shape the fight for modern indigenous cultures’ autonomy. A centerpiece of the exhibit is the Día de los Muertos altar, an ornately painted traditional Mexican ofrenda that houses pieces from the Alice P. Melvin Collection of Mexican Folk Art.
Digging Veritas presents the early history of student life at Harvard through archaeological finds uncovered at Harvard Yards. The exhibit highlights Harvard’s Indian College, a cornerstone of its early 17th-century teachings, and explores the social and religious tensions that shaped student life during the institution’s colonial days.
In addition to its public exhibitions, the museum houses more than 1.4 million archaeological, ethnographic, and archival objects from nearly every culture and continent in the world, spanning the length of human history. The North American collection, which accounts for over a quarter of the archive, includes the largest surviving store of artifacts from Lewis and Clark’s famed expeditions of the early 1800s. Items in the Central and South American collections are among the museum’s earliest-acquired holdings, with a focus on Mayan, Aztec, and Peruvian objects. The museum’s African collection features more than 20,000 items, many from university excavations in Egypt and Nubia. The Asian collection is particularly strong in items from the Middle East and also features one of the oldest collections of objects made by Japan’s indigenous Ainu people. Many of the 23,000 items in the Oceanic collection were acquired by Boston merchants and researchers during 18th-century voyages abroad. Special collections have been curated for artwork on paper, archival and photographic records, and human and non-human anatomical holdings.
Ongoing Programs and Conservation Efforts
Throughout its 150-year history, extensive excavation and education efforts have made the Peabody Museum an industry leader in archaeological conservation. Currently, the museum’s Conservation Department houses a photography studio, reference library, and working laboratory for the support of special projects. Ongoing excavations hosted by Harvard are dispersed throughout the globe and are constantly adding items to the museum’s collections. Additionally, many conservation efforts incorporate research activities related to the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act, embodying the museum’s commitment to cultural diversity across the ages and in present society.
Three specialized labs, the Mesoamerican Lab, the Paleoanthropology Lab, and the Zooarchaeology Lab, offer research opportunities for professionals and Harvard students to conduct ongoing research. Visitors can experience the Zooarchaeology Lab firsthand during public hours every October as part of the Massachusetts Archaeology Month. The museum also hosts a number of public events throughout the year, most notably celebrating the Mexican Day of the Dead holiday every November with a family fiesta.
11 Divinity Ave, Cambridge, MA 02138