Contributed by Ryan Wheeler
The central staircase of the Peabody includes a mural of American Indian life and history titled “Culture Areas of North America” by Stuart Travis (1868-1942). Travis was an accomplished and prolific American artist, illustrator, and designer who studied at the Académie Julian in Paris. His works—mostly drawings and watercolors—appeared frequently in magazines, books, and advertisements in the early twentieth century. Travis first came to Phillips Academy in 1928 to create the mural “History and Traditions of the School and Vicinity” in the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library. He continued to work at Phillips Academy, where he painted a total of three murals; he also designed the stone and wood gate that now leads to the Moncrieff Cochran Sanctuary.
The Peabody mural measures 13’11” by 10’2” and reflects ideas about anthropology and archaeology in the 1930s and 1940s. Major elements include the Maya Pyramid of the Magician at Uxmal on the left and a totem pole of the Northwest Coast on the right, with a map of cultures areas of North and Middle America occupying a central position, surmounted by six portraits across the top of the mural. Details and insets abound, illustrating artifacts, archaeological sites, ethnographic items, and scenes from Aztec and Maya codices. Illustrations of artifacts are drawn from the British Museum, the Museum of the American Indian (now the National Museum of the American Indian), the American Museum of Natural History, the Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology, as well as several other prominent institutions.
Major Maya archaeological sites are labeled on the central map, but the majority of the map surface only depicts watersheds and topography, suggesting that Travis may have planned to add even more detail to the mural. The shadow of a thunderbird is painted over the central map, with a note explaining the widespread belief in supernatural birds in the Americas. Other details include an inset illustrating details of the Cahokia, Etowah, and Hopewell sites—likely a nod to long-time Peabody Director Warren K. Moorehead’s work. In all, there are over 30 American Indian artifacts illustrated (some in low relief), ranging from an example of Mi’kmaq writing on birch bark to a Tlingit “raven hat.” Many of these artifacts were probably drawn from contemporary books and articles on archaeology, while some may have been suggested by Museum staff. Detailed notes about the artifacts were likely included so the mural could be used as a teaching tool for visitors.
Travis dated the mural 1938, but continued with additions through 1942. The mural was restored in 1997 by Christy Cunningham-Adams through the generous support of the Abbott Academy Association.
Clerkin, Jill, 2011, Stuart Travis: Artist and Artisan Mismatched with Time. Andover: The Magazine of Phillips Academy 104(3):28-29.
Falk, Peter Hastings (editor), 1985, Who Was Who in American Art. Sound View Press, Madison, CT.