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Haida mask
Haida mask from the Northwest Coast

The founding of the Museumís anthropology program in 1873 is linked by many with the origins of research anthropology in the United States. With the enthusiastic financial support of Museum President Morris K. Jesup, Boas undertook to document and preserve the record of human cultural variation before it disappeared under the advance of Europeís Industrial Revolution. Their expeditions resulted in the formation during the late 19th and early 20th centuries of the core of the Museumís broad and outstanding collection of artifacts.

A standard of high prestige and remarkable productivity has been a constant throughout the Divisionís century-plus history. Famous former Museum anthropologists include the eminent expert on native North America Clark Wissler, the archaeologist of ancient Mexico George C. Valliant, the biological anthropologist and human paleontologist Harry Shapiro, and, of course, the legendary Margaret Mead.

Benin mask
Benin bronze mask from West Africa

Current curators specialize in North American, South American, and Mesoamerican archaeology; the ethnology of North America, Africa, and Asia; or biological anthropology. Three of the eight curators on staff have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences in recognition of major discoveries and theoretical contributions to anthropology.

The Division also includes collections management staff, conservation staff, a cultural resources office, a database designer and administrator, and a registrar for loans, archives, and matters of repatriation.



The Divisionís collection comprises more than 500,000 objects, including artifacts from past and current cultures around the world. Its range is as broad as the ages and as varied as human historyófrom prehistoric stone tools excavated in Mongolia to baskets crafted in Senegal in the year 2000. Among the highlights are the Drummond East Asian Collection, the Walter L. Hildburgh Collection of Buddhist religious materials, and the Jesup Collection, which is considered to be the worldís finest collection of items from the indigenous cultures of the northwest coast of North America.

African artifact being photographed for digitization project
African artifact being photographed for digitization project

These irreplaceable cultural artifacts provide a window into the lives of the people who produced them. Of equal importance is the documentation accompanying them, often in the form of field notes, correspondence, and photographs. The Divisionís archives include 340,000 entries representing archaeological artifacts, 177,000 representing ethnological artifacts, and 23,000 representing physical anthropology specimens. They are resources to be used again and again as new questions are asked about the human experience. Great care is taken to preserve the assembled artifacts for future generations.

Selected objects from the collection, along with original handwritten catalogues and supporting documentation from the archives, are being preserved by systematic digital imaging. Paper and digital documentation record each objectís care and history at the Museum. The collections-management database also records the storage location of artifacts and tracks them as they move. A version of this database is available through the Divisionís Web site, greatly enhancing the publicís access to both collections and archives.



Anthropology storage facilities
Anthropology collection storage facilities

With the help of major grants, the Division has installed state-of-the-art storage facilities. These include climate-controlled compact storage; off-site storage for very large objects; special facilities for skins, furs, and textiles; and a high-security vault shared with the Division of Physical Sciences. The Division also maintains an objects conservation laboratory, a textile conservation laboratory, two research laboratories, computer support facilities, and a digital imaging laboratory.

Also at the Museum Beyond Planet Earth


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