North American Ethnographic Collection

Jesup North Pacific Expedition
Kwakiutl waiting for the feast. Fort Rupert, British Columbia, 1894. Photograph by Franz Boas.Negative No: 335772, AMNH Library.

The Division of Anthropology was established at the AMNH in 1873, only four years after the founding of the museum. During its first 17 years, the department was concerned almost exclusively with the acquisition and display of artifacts. The division acquired material more or less at random; there was no basic philosophy or particular geographical emphasis that guided this activity. This stage of its history lasted until 1890 when the first professional anthropologist, Frederic W. Putnam, was appointed Curator of Anthropology. He immediately began to engage the best anthropologists of the day, such as Franz Boas and Clark Wissler, two of the most important early figures in American anthropology.

Although scientific fieldwork began the year after Putnam's appointment when the department sponsored its first professional field expedition to Northern Mexico and the Sierra Madre, research really took off with the appointment of Boas in 1895. Both Boas and Wissler were interested chiefly in the North American Indians and for the next 50 or so years until the end of the Second World War, the activities of the Division of Anthropology were devoted mainly to North American ethnology and archaeology. However, one scientific interest of the late 1890s and early 1900s, the origin of the American Indians, involved research in Siberia, and the museum consequently made major contributions to Siberian ethnology.

Fieldwork among North American Indians was driven by two main concerns. There was a sense of urgency about collecting artifacts, as well as other information, for it was thought that the material culture of the Indians was on the verge of disappearing. Moreover, professional ethnographic reports of tribal cultures were needed both as an empirical base for the construction of theory and for the preparation of accurate and informative exhibitions. Artifacts and information were combined in exhibitions which grew apace with the collections. Early exhibition halls in which artifacts from many regions were assembled gradually gave way to separate halls devoted to the tribes of a specific region. At one time, the museum featured large separate galleries on the Indians of the Southwest, Plains, Eastern Woodlands, Northwest Coast, and Eskimo. There was also a gallery dedicated to North American archaeology. The floor space devoted to North American Indians continued to grow, reaching about 40,000 square feet at its peak in the 1950s. Since then, the Southwest and Archaeology halls have been dismantled, and the Plains and Eastern Woodlands have been combined in a single gallery while the Eskimo exhibit was about doubled in floor space. The current total exhibit area for North American ethnology is about 20,000 square feet.

The AMNH was one of the principal American centers for anthropological research during the first two decades of the 20th century. Those years were noteworthy for three major projects that retain their fame and importance even today: on the tribes of the Northwest Coast and Siberia, the Plains Indians, and the archaeology and ethnology of the Southwest. The Northwest Coast and Plains projects featured mainly ethnology while the Southwest research put the greater emphasis on archaeology.

The Jesup North Pacific Expedition led by Franz Boas, the first landmark research project of the Department of Anthropology, turned out to be one of the most scientifically important anthropological investigations ever mounted. The Expedition was concerned with the extent and nature of contact between the tribes of the Northwest Coast and Siberia with an eye to solving the problem of the origin of the first populations to inhabit the New World. Several small teams, usually a husband and wife but sometimes a single individual, worked on the Northwest Coast and in Siberia from 1897 to 1902. One result was a series of classic monographs on the tribes of the two regions published as volumes 2 to 11 of the Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History.

Equally important were the superb collections made in the two regions. The Siberian collection is so good that even the Russians are impressed. On the Northwest Coast, the Expedition collected from the southern tribes, especially the Kwakwaka'wakw (Kwakiutl). The collections of the northern tribes, especially the Tlingit, were obtained by George Emmons during the 1880s. The Museum's overall collections for the Northwest Coast are the best in the world by general agreement of experts. Some of the most significant Siberian material is on exhibition in the Peoples of Asia Hall, and the Northwest Coast artifacts are displayed in a large gallery devoted to just that region.

Franz Boas and the Jesup Expedition were followed by Clark Wissler and research among the Plains tribes from about 1905 to the Second World War. This research resulted in the publication of more than 50 monographs, principally in the Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, and also in one of the most complete collections of Plains artifacts in the world, a part of which is on display in the Hall of the Plains Indians. A significant feature of the Plains research was the comparative analysis of important cultural complexes that were found in all the tribes, for example, the Sun Dance. Leslie Spier's monograph, The Sun Dance of the Plains Indians: its development and diffusion, and Wissler's essay, Plains Indian age-societies: historical and comparative summary were both important theoretical contributions of the day.

Departmental research among the Indians of the Southwest began in 1895 when B. T. B. Hyde and Frederick Hyde offered to finance the excavation of the Pueblo Benito Ruin. George H. Pepper, who served as field director, published the report of the excavation in the Anthropological Papers in 1920. The report was republished in 1996 by the University of New Mexico Press. Another noteworthy project was the excavation of the Aztec Ruin in New Mexico. Artifacts from both sites were brought to the Museum and at one time were on exhibition in the now dismantled Southwest Indian Hall.

Ethnological research in the Southwest, begun in 1900, became a major project in 1909 under the patronage of Archer M. Huntington, a museum trustee. Work was undertaken both among the nomadic tribes and the Pueblos. The result of this research was several monographs published in the Anthropological Papers and a collection of artifacts, many of which were on exhibition in the now dismantled Southwest Indian Hall.

From 1892 the Museum has been active in many areas besides those mentioned above. Research dates from 1899 in California, 1908 in the Arctic, from as early as the 1870s in Mesoamerica, and from 1892 in South America. Archaeological work continues today in Mesoamerica and South America. Extensive collections were made in each of these areas. A representative sample is on exhibition in the Hall of South American Peoples, the Mexican Hall, and the Eskimo Hall. The small but exquisite California collection was shown in the Southwest Hall.

Margaret Mead joined the staff in 1926. Her research in Oceania marked the beginning of a current trend: the broadning of the geographical coverage of the department to include Africa, Asia, and Oceania. There are now exhibition halls devoted to each of these regions. The trend was stimulated by developments in anthropology since World War II. The research of the curators of archaeology is still confined to the Americas, but the majority of the ethnologists work outside the Americas. But the older departmental traditions have by no means been forgotten. The Museum recently hosted a conference to celebrate the centenary of the Jesup Expedition. The older research was reappraised, and many new research findings were presented.

Additional Resources: Objects and Photographs from Jesup North Pacific Expedition