All the World Is Here: Harvard’s Peabody Museum and the Invention of American Anthropology. A new exhibit (opened April 2017) at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, curated by Irene Castle McLaughlin, Ilisa Barbash, and Diana Loren.

In celebration of its 150th anniversary, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology at Harvard University has curated All the World Is Here: Harvard’s Peabody Museum and the Invention of American Anthropology. The exhibition boasts an impressive array of ethnographic artifacts, which range from a Feejee mermaid to Hopi baskets to a bracelet from the Iron Age. Photographs, correspondence, and newspaper clippings set the historical contexts during which the artifacts were created, collected, and circulated. Together, these materials document the late-nineteenth-century ambitions behind the founding of the museum, while granting particular attention to the work of Frederic Ward Putnam, who served as the Peabody’s second director (1875-1909) and trained the first generation of ethnographers in the country, including Franz Boas. The exhibit argues that the Peabody Museum, as a hub for the aggregation of artifacts and intellectual engagement, provided an initial scaffolding for anthropology as an academic discipline in the United States.

As we, the authors of this review, moved through the exhibition’s showcases, our smartphones-cum-cameras inspired a question that is also provoked by the exhibit’s title: all the world may be here, but where, exactly, is here? The geotagging technology that recorded where we were collecting our images designated different locations throughout the exhibition hall. As may be expected, photos snapped at the exhibit entrance identified our position as in the “Peabody Museum of Archaeology/Ethnology.” However, photos taken elsewhere in the room (even snapped just a few feet apart) informed us that we were at “Lesley University,” in “Cambridge—Agassiz,” and in “Somerville—Spring Hill.” Our errant technology unwittingly yet helpfully unsettled the designation of “here.” Where, we asked ourselves while reflecting on the images that we captured, is anthropology constructed? Where does anthropology happen?

Geotagging ‘All the World Is Here’ (photographs by Alison Laurence, with contributions from iPhone geotagging)


Model of Serpent Mound (photograph by Grace Kim)

Upon entering the hall and following a clockwise circuit, we came upon a display case containing a wood and plaster model of Serpent Mound, which is located in what is now southwestern Ohio. This model, which features prominently in the Peabody’s origin story, immediately illustrates how the “here” travels. The replica depicts in miniature the 1,300-foot-long effigy earthwork of a snake with gaping jaws—a landmark that Frederic Ward Putnam first encountered in 1883. Putnam successfully raised private funds for the mound’s preservation and conducted excavations on the site until 1900 when the protected area was deeded to Ohio as a state park. For Putnam, documenting and promoting prehistoric earthworks like Serpent Mound and other evidence of indigenous manipulations of the environment (including mundane but impressively large refuse heaps) were critical to the intellectual project of legitimizing North America as a respectable site of archaeological and anthropological study. In order to counterbalance scholarly overestimation of Classical civilizations, Putnam and his peers claimed, scholars must add societies that had left behind a scanter textual archive. In their view, America could be an antidote to the sometimes-myopic focus on the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean.

The museum setting of such models, along with its attendant “object-based epistemology,”[1] was essential for increasing popular appreciation of cultures beyond the Classical World. Serpent Mound and other sites could be witnessed (albeit in miniature) in the museum alongside more portable cultural artifacts. By 1890, the Boston Daily Globe could boast sincerely of the impressive age and scale of Maine’s oyster middens, declaring “Egypt Outdone” by the “debris of banqueting savages”—assumptions about the “primitive” nature of non-Europeans notwithstanding (see Globe facsimile below). Much like the American naturalists who a century earlier had defended their nascent nation’s resources against Continental naturalists, American anthropologists labored and succeeded in establishing the Americas as a worthwhile site of scientific inquiry.[2]

“Egypt Outdone,” Boston Daily Globe, February 9, 1890.

Putnam used the Peabody Museum to shape the emerging discipline of anthropology within the academy, but it was in Chicago in 1893 that he and his protégé Boas introduced it as a practice to “all the world,” a phrase that was in the air at the World’s Columbian Exposition. [3] According to the exhibit, American anthropology was partly invented “here” at the Peabody, but Putnam used “there”—an international stage outside the museum’s walls—to further promote the nation’s contributions to the development of anthropology. Nearly half of the exhibit space is given over to materials from the 1893 Chicago fair, a celebration that marked four centuries since contact (or conquest and contamination) between the “Old” World and the “New.” On view are artifacts that Putnam (who was in charge of the fair’s Department of Anthropology) displayed in Chicago, photographs of the living ethnographic exhibits he assembled, instruments from the physical anthropology laboratory that transformed fairgoers into anthropological subjects, and ephemera like the guidebooks and tickets that Peabody employees thought to save. Serpent Mound, too, was there at the fair, though it was a different model than that which appears in this exhibit. The extent to which “all the world” was there in Chicago was debated even then and is contested in the fair’s historiography,[4] revealing the incommensurability of the universal “world” and the particular “here.”

The Harvard Adam and Eve with author (and once a Harvard undergraduate) Grace Kim (photograph by Alison Laurence)

The only human bodies that are displayed in the exhibit are inorganic models of “the Harvard Adam and Eve,” statues commissioned for the Columbian Exposition by Dr. Dudley Sargent. Sargent, who in his role as Director of the Harvard Hemenway Gymnasium, had collected anthropometric data from thousands of (mostly white) Harvard students and designed what he considered to be the average or typical male and female body. The statues, displayed on plinths in the fair’s Anthropology Building and suggestive of Classical statuary (though without any claims to a physical ideal), were intended to contrast the bronze yet white bodies with the living indigenous bodies and artifacts displayed throughout the fair. The inclusion of these models is an unexpected and provocative move by the Peabody and subtly—too subtly perhaps—subverts the long history of exploitative pageantry of non-white anthropological subjects. Whether intentional or not, the exhibit approaches a revision of what Patricia Capone, who is a curator of the Peabody and Director of Repatriation and Research Services, has called the “historically damaging wonder” embedded in the dispossession and display of native bodies and cultures.[5]

At the end of the exhibit, we encountered an artifact of our own time—an optimistic video reflecting on the implementation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA). Subjects in the film, including Native Americans and museum professionals (who are sometimes one and the same) speak to visitors about the mutual benefits of native and museum collaborations, described by one individual as a “win-win.” The Peabody has cooperated with NAGPRA in the large-scale repatriation of native remains,[6] but some anthropological collections have resisted it. In 2013, Clayton W. Dumont Jr., who is a sociologist and member of the Klamath tribe, decried that approximately 120,000 ancestral human remains were “stranded in the drawers, boxes, and laboratories” of uncooperative institutions claiming the bodies to be culturally unidentifiable.[7] These tensions are not explicitly addressed here, but this important exhibit contends that anthropology and its museum origins are ethically messy and indivisible from a complicated history of dispossession. Visitors are encouraged to exit All the World Is Here feeling hopeful about the future of ethnographic museums while mindful of the debt owed by American anthropologists and museums to the first peoples. All the World Is Here thus reflects on which sites of “here” and “there” have mattered (or, have not mattered) for American anthropology and concludes with questions about where it could go.

“Implementing NAGPRA” video (photograph by Alison Laurence)

Acknowledgments: Many thanks to the editors and Stefan Helmreich for their insightful comments and suggestions, and to the Peabody Museum for permission to use images of the exhibit.


[1] Stephen Conn, Museums and American Intellectual Life, 1876-1926 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

[2] In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), Thomas Jefferson notes that “The opinion advanced by the Count de Buffon, is 1. That the animals common both to the old and new world, are smaller in the latter. 2. That those peculiar to the new are on a smaller scale. 3. That those which have been domesticated in both, have degenerated in America: and 4. That on the whole it exhibits fewer species.” However, he asks one “…to justify a suspension of opinion until we are better informed, and a suspicion, in the mean time, that there is no uniform difference in favor of either…”

[3] See Curtis M. Hinsley and David R. Wilcox, ed., Coming of Age in Chicago: The 1893 World’s Fair and the Coalescence of American Anthropology (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016).

[4] Christopher Robert Reed, “All the World Is Here!”: The Black Presence at White City (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000).

[5] Patricia Capone, “Amending Wonder: Museums and Twenty Years of the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act,” in Accomplishing NAGPRA: Perspectives on the Intent, Impact, and Future of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, ed. Sangita Chari and Jaime M. N. Lavallee, 115-134 (Corvallis, OR: Oregon University Press, 2013), 130.

[6] Ibid., 124-5.

[7] Clayton W. Dumont Jr., “Navigating a Colonial Quagmire: Affirming Native Lives in the Struggle to Defend Our Dead,” in Accomplishing NAGPRA: Perspectives on the Intent, Impact, and Future of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, ed. Sangita Chari and Jaime M. N. Lavallee, 239-264 (Corvallis, OR: Oregon University State Press, 2013), 252. See also Chip Colwell’s Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America’s Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017).

Grace Kim: contributions / / HASTS, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Alison Laurence: contributions / / HASTS, Massachusetts Institute of Technology