American Religions Students Become Peabody Museum Curators

Curved and dangling with blue beads and soft white fur, the Chipewyan object on display at the Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology researched by Lydia Paris ’17 looks quite different from traditional western ideas of a smoking pipe. After weeks of research, she discovered the pipe was passed around by traders who didn’t see it in the sacred context of Native American spirituality, which illuminated a history of disrespect for Native American artifacts and culture.

“George Grinnell was the original anthropologist [of my object]. He didn’t send it to a museum. He sent it to be traded. So he was not using it for a sacred purpose. He was using it for profit. So I think that was something really interesting… I think a lot of it comes down to disrespect for Native American [religions],” said Paris.

Having spent weeks planning and organizing an exhibit, the students in Kurt Prescott’s “Religion in America: One Nation, Under God(s)?” class can finally call themselves museum curators. The students spent the last three weeks of fall term conducting intense research on an arctic or subarctic artifact in the Peabody Museum. During the process, they researched their object’s origins, provenance, sacred significance, and how it came into the hands of the museum.

Students gathered their research into a paper on the significance of their object, covering everything from the item’s journey to the Peabody to its importance in the religion of its original tribe. From their essays, the students enveloped all of the information into a 50-word descriptive blurb that would explain the object to the general public so that it could be shown off in an exhibit.

Prescott, Instructor in Philosophy and Religious Studies, developed the idea for this project over the summer with Ryan Wheeler, Director of the Peabody Museum.

The class was focused on religion in America, which for Prescott was an interesting opportunity to incorporate sacred Native American artifacts held at the Peabody into his project. Grace Anthony ’17 was grateful to have the opportunity to work with her object, a bone fishhook, at the museum.

“I think it’s really cool that we have [the Peabody] on campus,” said Anthony. “I don’t think it’s used enough… It is a resource to see something real that applies to your learning. It does have a very nice department. It is a lot of Native American tribal stuff that they have there. That is not always covered in our history classes but that is something we can talk about,” said Anthony.

Throughout the project, the class learned more about the process of how museums gather and store information, as they had to conduct the majority of their research on their objects via outside sources.

Students helped develop the Peabody’s records of the objects they researched, making many discoveries previously unknown to the museum’s curators themselves.

“I was really impressed by some of the things that they figured out. And it was really an opportunity for me to learn more about them. Some of the collections came from expeditions, but there were also some that were gifts. And so it was fascinating to see how they found their way to us and learn a little bit more about them,” said Wheeler.

When Prescott first came up with this assignment over the summer, he knew it would be difficult, but he was also excited to see how his students would work together with the staff at the Peabody.

“When you’re assigned a bone fishhook, you can be like, ‘Okay what is this boring research paper.’ But I think what they found is that the object in and of itself often defied whatever their expectations were of it… you suddenly discover [an artifact was] mis-categorized by the Peabody and it’s actually a pendant that you would’ve worn on the bottom of a skirt to help keep your legs warm,” said Prescott.

Prescott believes that the project was a success, and he will continue to work with and build upon it in the coming years.

The artifacts and the students’ short descriptions are currently on display in the Peabody.