All posts by Bonnie Sousa

Biface Cache Research

Contributed by Bonnie Sousa

Abigail Gamble, a student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, visited the Peabody to examine stone tools for her senior thesis.  She looked at several stone blades from an archaeological site in Andover for her comparative study of blades in the Northeast.   The museum acquired the artifacts from collector Arthur Hofmann in the early 1940s.

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A Day in the Life at the Peabody Museum

Contributed by Bonnie Sousa, Registrar/Senior Collections Manager

When I mention to people outside of the museum world that I am in collections management and registration, some think I work for a collections agency. In fact, museuSousa,Bonniem collections management and registration involves physical and intellectual control of artifact collections and includes such activities as cataloging, inventorying, and storing artifacts; accessioning (the formal process of taking items into the collections); managing loans; answering research and reproduction queries; and working on the museum’s Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) inventory, to name a few.

And at a small museum like the Peabody, the list of responsibilities grows to include additional activities. Not typically mentioned in job descriptions, but still important in the goal of reaching professional standards, are such unglamorous tasks as emptying dehumidifiers in artifact storage spaces, handling early morning calls from the alarm company regarding power outages at the building, and removing food trash at the end of the day so that insects and other pests are not attracted to the artifacts. To give you a better idea of what’s involved in collections management and registration at the Peabody, here is a list of a few behind the scenes tasks I performed on a typical day recently:

Morning:
Answered e-mail queries—Some of the queries we receive are from textbook publishers asking for CornCobs_MacNeish_Tehuacanpermission to use images from the Peabody’s collections. To date, our most received request is for this image of the evolution of corn from the excavations of Richard “Scotty” MacNeish in the Tehuacán Valley of Mexico. Many college-level, introduction to archaeology textbooks feature this image.

Renewed our loan to the Visitor Center at the Pueblo of Jemez—The Peabody has several ongoing loans to other museums, Native American tribes, a national park, and a public high school. On loan to the Visitor Center at the Pueblo of Jemez are artifacts from their ancestral site, Pecos Pueblo.

Put away artifacts for a Phillips Academy history class on westward expansion – Artifacts from the Peabody are regularly used in classes taught at the Peabody. Our PastPerfect collections management database allows us to create lists that work perfectly for pulling artifacts to ensure that we can locate them and put them back in the right spot.

Afternoon:
Entered catalog records into the Peabody’s database for artifacts from the Mansion Inn, a site in Wayland, Mass. — We recently learned that items from this site must be listed on the museumCatalog Cards’s NAGPRA inventory. Assembling an inventory begins with compiling existing documentation and records and ensuring that all artifacts are entered into the museum’s database. Our next steps will be to contact tribal officials to let them know we hold these collections, and National NAGPRA, a Cultural Resources program of the National Park Service, to update the museum’s inventories. After consulting with tribal officials and submitting drafts to National NAGPRA, a Notice of Inventory Completion will be published in the Federal Register.

Updated storage locations for textile artifacts—I have two volunteers who have been trained to inspect and vacuum textile collections for pest damage as part of a comprehensive pest management program. When textile artifacts have been inspected and vacuumed after undergoing low temperature treatment to eliminate any potential pests, their storage locations must be updated to ensure we can find them in the future.

Backed up our PastPerfect collections management database before heading home—Regular backups of data are important so that recent information added about the artifacts is not lost.

As you can see, one of the most rewarding benefits of working in museum collections is the wide variety of work that needs to be done, and I’ve really only touched the surface here. There is never a dull moment, and the nature of the work keeps me on my toes. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Box Us In! Abbot Academy Association Funds Archival Boxes for Peabody Collections

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Peabody archaeology collections storage will undergo an ambitious upgrade made possible by a grant from the Abbot Academy Association, continuing Abbot’s tradition of boldness, innovation, and caring. The Peabody Museum received $45,746 to fund 3,000 archival boxes to replace deteriorating wooden drawers where collections are currently housed. Boxes eliminate contamination from wood debris in addition to improving accessibility and portability. Heavy or large artifacts such as stone axes and ceramic vessels will be stored on open shelving.

The project will be split over three years and will use the museum’s existing workforce of Phillips Academy work duty students, college interns, and adult and student volunteers guided by the collections management team of Marla Taylor and Bonnie Sousa. Archival boxes are a first step in a broader collections storage plan to consolidate museum collections and improve environmental conditions.

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The Language of Baskets

Contributed by Catherine K. Hunter

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What can be coiled, plaited, twined, or sewn in the form of a tray, bowl, bottle, cone, or trunk using tree barks or splints, river cane, pine needles, or grasses? If you are familiar with this vocabulary, you will know the answer: Native American basketry. What you may not know is that the Peabody Museum houses more than 350 examples of Native American basketry, including fragments of ancient woven sandals, 19th- and 20th-century utilitarian and ceremonial forms, and a few examples by recognized 21st-century artists.

In my current capacity as a volunteer at the Peabody, I am collaborating with the museum’s registrar and senior collections manager, Bonnie Sousa, on conducting a thorough inventory of the Peabody’s Native American basketry collection. For this project, we are attempting to combine for each example a description of forms, techniques, and materials; identification of people/culture and geographic region; and data from museum records. The first 35 examples I examined include plaited ash-splint storage baskets from the Northeast with distinctive stamped and painted designs; twill-plaited trunks and trays from the Southeast made with natural, dyed orange and brown river cane splints; and a variety of trays of coiled grasses and pine needles.

My first volunteer position was in the 1970s at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum following a recommendation by my mentor, Joanne Segal Brandford, who subsequently published the museum’s basket collection. After studying and teaching fiber arts and design at the University of California, Berkeley, Brandford worked as a researcher, curator, teacher, and fiber artist. Why baskets? In the following paragraph, she succinctly describes the foundation for a career of exploration:

Baskets are often linked to domesticity and smallness, the implication being that these qualities preclude significant artwork. I could counter with basket-shrines made for ritual, or I could point to house-sized baskets (used, indeed, as houses) and so I could ‘elevate’ baskets with religious significance or architectural scale. But all such uses/meanings refer to our humanity, and consequently to ourselves and to our families, to life, and to death. What can be more meaningful for an artist working in fiber, than to honor the basket, with its myriad human associations?

BASKETS: Redefining Volume and Meaning (1993). The University of Hawaii, Art Gallery, Honolulu, Hawaii. Pat Hickman, Curator

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Catherine K. Hunter is an independent museum consultant whose career began in the Department of Textiles at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She has always been interested in the study of basketry and recently wrote feature articles about contemporary Native American and American artists for the National Basketry Organization.