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Laura Watson Benedict: Pioneering Anthropologist

by AMNH on

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Laura Watson Benedict (1861–1932) was the first anthropologist to travel to the Philippines in 1906 to study the Bagobo people. She brought back the hornbill spoon, now on display in The Power of Poison exhibition, which closes on Sunday, August 10, 2014. According to Malaysian legend, the spoon would change color, even turn black, in the presence of poison.

Hornbill Spoon

In 1910, the Museum purchased Benedict’s collection of 2,534 Bagobo artifacts for $4,000 and she was hired to accession it. Four years later, Benedict became the first woman to earn a doctorate in anthropology from Columbia University, publishing her thesis, Bagobo Ceremonial Magic and Myth, in 1916. According to anthropologist Jay H. Bernstein in a 1985 article on Benedict, her study of the Bagobo “remains a forgotten treasure of 20th-century anthropology.”

Hall of Pacific Peoples

In the Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples, visitors will find 29 artifacts collected by Benedict, including exquisitely beaded clothing and jewelry. Reflecting on the pride the Bagobo exhibited in their possessions and handiwork, Benedict wrote in the American Museum Journal in 1911, “If the Bagobo people could come to the New York and see their belongings arranged in a great hall in sight of all visitors, their joy would be unbounded."

This story is adapted from an article in the Summer 2014 issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.