Renowned Hearst Museum of Anthropology at 100

By Kathleen Maclay, Public Affairs


Giza, 1905

Phoebe Hearst (center) sits atop a camel at Giza, Egypt, circa 1905

06 March 2002 | The funeral stela made for ancient Egyptian Prince Wepemnofret has traveled to museums around the world. Now back in its home at the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology, the ancient treasure is making a rare public appearance as part of Berkeley’s centennial salute to a vast collection of rare and unusual artifacts.

The museum’s centennial exhibit is full of tantalizing objects. Visitors will also be greeted at the entrance by a diorite vision of Sekhmet, a goddess of war, epidemics and doctors, and a bust of museum benefactress Phoebe Hearst herself.

“Wepe” is further inside, near a papyrus-stuffed crocodile created in homage to the principal deity of Tebtunis during the Ptolemaic period. Around a corner is a clay tableau made by a Mexican artist, depicting a grieving ceremony complete with a corpse in a coffin, survivors, a candle and two angels.

Nearby rests the 101-page Aryakaranavyuha sutra, an elegantly-bound treatise on compassion and mercy and the first Buddhist text translated into Tibetan. An adjacent case contains an elk antler spoon made in 1994 by a contemporary carver from the Hupa and Yurok tribes. Around the corner, an Eskimo shaman’s mask reflects the skeletal form necessary for supernatural voyages.

Contrasts and connections are sometimes subtle, sometimes immense in the new centennial exhibit.

“We’re trying to teach people a little bit of anthropology and a little bit of history with multiple voices, combining objects, research and culture,” said Patrick Kirch, director of the museum, which is the largest and oldest anthropological museum in the West.

“The history of the Hearsts’ collections is, in a microcosm, a history of the intellectual engagement between anthropology and material culture,” he said.

Museum founding
The museum, which was founded in 1901, is especially strong in classical antiquities because patron Phoebe Hearst loved the classical civilizations of the ancient Mediterranean. She commissioned academician Alfred Emerson to assemble a collection that included casts of Greek and Roman sculpture, and added 4,200 items of her own to the museum’s classical holdings.

The museum’s major founding collections include the largest assemblage of ancient Egyptian artifacts west of Chicago. Approximately 20,000 objects span Egyptian prehistory and history, from Paleolithic to early Islamic times. Its core — materials such as beads, stone statuary, clothing, pottery vessels, shrouds, coffins, amulets and tools of stone, metal, wood, ivory and bone — was collected by George Reisner.

From 1899 to 1905, Reisner directed the University of California Egyptian Expedition, which Phoebe Hearst sponsored. The project yielded a significant body of excavation records and publications describing archaeological sites throughout the Nile Valley, as well as a papyri collection now kept at The Bancroft Library. Its key legacy, however, is approximately 17,000 objects preserved in the Hearst Museum.

Exhibit preparation
Preparing the centennial exhibit, which features about 700 objects, was a daunting task because the museum’s space does not match the size and value of its prized collection. Its limited gallery space can accommodate less than 1 percent of the Heart Museum’s estimated 4 million artifacts. A former museum director once estimated that it would take 300 years to rotate all of the Hearst objects through the museum’s gallery displays.

“So much of what we have is hidden, unseen,” agrees Ira Jacknis, an associate research anthropologist and curator of the two exhibits that opened Feb. 28. “You could go on and on with these great treasures. We have storerooms and storerooms of wonderful things [that have] never been shown.”

Objects on display in the “Century of Collecting” exhibit have been carefully chosen from a collection that dates back to 4000 B.C. This collage of artifacts, along with documentary field notes, photos and maps, will remain open for at least a year at its Kroeber Hall gallery. Paper and fiber objects are included, thanks to a recently installed gallery climate control system that protects the fragile objects from deterioration.

Opening at the same time is “Native Californian Cultures,” a permanent exhibit of about 500 artifacts from the museum’s California collections, which comprise the largest and most comprehensive collections in the world devoted to California Indian cultures.

This exhibit is located in a corner room once considered the worst in the gallery. Improved lighting, new cases and other upgrades have transformed the space, which contains a large section dedicated to Ishi, the famous Indian who lived and worked at the museum’s former home in San Francisco.

Ishi’s legacy
Ishi became the subject of study by Berkeley anthropologist Alfred Kroeber for several years before his death. Ishi’s arrowheads and bows, a flag pin and a Panama Pacific medal that he wore, Yana tribal baskets and a 17-foot Yurok canoe carved from a single redwood around the turn-of-the-20th century, are among the artifacts in this exhibit.

“The quality of the collections inspires the sort of wonder and curiosity that provides a foundation for the best research,” said Beth Burnside, vice chancellor for research, during the new exhibit’s opening reception. “Few universities worldwide are able to offer their faculty and students this kind of research opportunity.”

Diverse cultures, periods
The centennial exhibit is laid out chronologically, and by discipline and region, with story cards designed to link diverse cultures and time periods and offer context for the individual artifacts.

Stepping into the first exhibit section, visitors can marvel over the museum’s major founding collections: Native American, ancient Peru (1500 B.C. to 1500 A.D.), Egyptian (from the Predynastic through the Coptic periods), and antiquities from Greece and Italy (dating from 1500 B.C. to 300 A.D.). Other displays were curated from collections from African countries, Mexico, Guate-mala, Peru, Brazil, India, China, Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and numerous Pacific islands.

Another exhibit section features a transition period in the museum’s history, from 1920 to 1945, when the Great Depression and World War II contributed to a decline in collecting. Collections during this era came primarily from California and elsewhere in North America.

In the years between 1945 to 1960, climbing university enrollments the prosperity of a peacetime economy bolstered museum collections. Berkeley’s California and Nevada archaeology collections grew substantially and expanded in new areas, such as Latin America, Asia, Africa and Oceania.
The museum’s second “great period” of collecting occurred from 1960 to 1980. Africanist William Bascom became director and, for two decades dramatically boosted holdings from Africa. Graduate students returned with important collections from India, Indonesia, Japan and Oceania. The museum also moved into its permanent home in Kroeber Hall during this time.

Centennial events
Anthropology centennial programs on campus this month include:

• An exhibit on the early history of anthropology at Berkeley, on display at Bancroft Library through April 29.
• An international conference, “Internal Boundaries and Internationalization: Four Decades of Berkeley Anthropological Research on Japan,” March 15 and 16 in Kroeber Hall.
• A spring conference, “Alfred Kroeber and his Legacy: A Centennial Conference,” April 12 and 13, to celebrate the past, present and future of anthropology.


Information on centennial events


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