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A century of collecting

Mummy case of Princess Nes-Khonsu-pa-shered
The mummy case of Princess Nes-Khonsu-pa-shered is readied for display in the Hearst Museum of Anthropology's centennial exhibition. Check out the slide show: "A Century of Collecting."  Peg Skorpinski photo

Centennial exhibit spotlights collections, research at UC Berkeley's Hearst Museum of Anthropology
01 March 2002

By Kathleen Maclay, Media Relations

Slide show: "A Century of Collecting"

Berkeley - The funeral stela made for ancient Egyptian Prince Wepemnofret has traveled to museums around the world. Now, at its home at the University of California, Berkeley, it's making a rare public appearance as the campus observes the first 100 years of its Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology.

Also greeting visitors, at the entrance, is a diorite vision of Sekhmet, a goddess of war, epidemics and doctors, and a bust of museum benefactress Phoebe Hearst. "Wepe" is further back, by 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 of a grieving ceremony complete with survivors, a man in a coffin, a candle and two angels.

Nearby rests the 101-page Aryakaranavyuha sutra, an elegantly-bound text about 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, and around the corner, an Eskimo shaman's mask reflects the skeletal form necessary for supernatural voyages.

The centennial exhibit's contrasts and connections are sometimes subtle, sometimes immense.

"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 V. Kirch, director of the largest and oldest anthropological museum in the West.

"The history of the Hearst's collections is, in a microcosm, a history of the intellectual engagement between anthropology and material culture," he said.

Preparing the exhibit, featuring some 700 objects, was a daunting task, as the museum's space dramatically fails to match the size and value of its prized collection. The Hearst's limited gallery space can accommodate less than one percent of its estimated 4 million artifacts, and a former museum director once estimated that rotating all Hearst objects into gallery displays would take 300 years.

"So much of what we have is hidden, unseen," agreed Ira Jacknis, an associate research anthropologist and curator of the two exhibits that opened Thursday. "You could go on and on with these great treasures," he said. "We have storerooms and storerooms of wonderful things never shown."

The museum is located in Kroeber Hall at the corner of Bancroft Way and College Avenue on the campus of the University of California in Berkeley. The phone number is (510) 643-7648. Admission is $2 for adults, $1 for seniors, and $.50 for children 16 and under; admission is free for museum members, UC students, staff and faculty and to the public on Thursdays. The museum is open Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Sunday 12 noon to 4:30 p.m. It is closed Monday and Tuesday.

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 just-installed gallery climate control system to guard against deterioration.

Opening at the same time is "Native Californian Cultures," a permanent exhibit of about 500 artifacts from the museum's California collections, 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 into the best. It contains a large section dedicated to Ishi, the famous Indian, who lived and worked at the museum's former home in San Francisco and was studied for several years before his death. Arrowheads and bows made by Ishi, a flag pin and Panama Pacific medal worn by Ishi, Yana tribal baskets and a 17-foot Yurok canoe carved from a single redwood around the turn-of-the-century are among the artifacts in the exhibit.

"In the wake of 9/11, the Hearst's collections reassure us of the unity and resilience of the human spirit through time," said Beth Burnside, UC Berkeley vice chancellor for research, during an opening reception Thursday. "The quality of the collections inspires the sort of wonder and curiosity that provides a foundation for the best research. Few universities worldwide are able to offer their faculty and students this kind of research opportunity."

Recent campus research projects involving museum collections include two master's theses in Near Eastern Studies on ancient Egyptian boats and on ceramics, a PhD dissertation on ancient Neolithic ancestor skulls, and re-analysis of San Francisco Bay shell mound sites, Burnside noted. In the past two years, she said, more than 220 researchers have visited the Hearst to study its holdings.

Visitors to the "Century of Collecting " exhibit can follow the Hearst Museum's institutional course to see how the work of the anthropology museum has evolved through the work of prominent anthropologists including Max Uhle, George Reisner, Alfred Emerson, Alfred Kroeber, Edward Gifford, Robert Heizer, William Bascom and George Foster.

It includes artifacts seldom seen up close except by curators, conservators and researchers, graduate students or the small but growing number of participants in public outreach programs.

Each exhibit case is a dense trove of artifacts collected by UC Berkeley anthropologists, archeologists and scholars. Some objects were donated, such as the 2,400 artifacts given to the university in 1897 by the Alaska Commercial Company. Through "story cards," the exhibit explains why individuals made and used the objects on display, and why and how the collections were assembled.

Jacknis noted that Kroeber found California Indians using metal-tipped tools and dressed in denim jeans 100 years ago, but focused his collecting only on the aspects of their lives reflecting no contact with the outside world. And, Jacknis said, many early anthropologists would be horrified to see tourist art included in the exhibit, although tourist art now is a well-recognized scholarly pursuit.

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.; Egypt (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 systematic collections from African countries, Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, Brazil, India, China, Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and numerous Pacific islands.

The museum began with the Hearst era of 1901 to 1919. In that period, the museum collection grew as Phoebe Hearst personally collected, funded collection expeditions and bought artifacts with the intent of donating them to the museum. Collections focused on Egypt, Peru, Greece and Italy, California, Guatemala, Alaska and the prehistoric Southwest.

Next was the transition period of 1920 to 1945, when the Depression and World War II contributed to a decline in collecting. At the same time, the number of the university's anthropology students increased. Collections in this era came primarily from California and elsewhere in North America.

From 1945 to 1960, was a time of expansion as overall university enrollment climbed and a peacetime economy prevailed. Museum collections increased substantially in California and Nevada archaeology in the 1950s, as it branched out 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 took over the museum reins for over two decades (1957-1979) and dramatically boosted the Hearst Museum holdings from Africa. Graduate students returned with important collections from India, Indonesia, Japan and Oceania. Formerly shunned types of objects, such as tourist goods, began being avidly collected. In this period, the museum moved from a series of temporary quarters into its permanent home in Kroeber Hall.

Today, efforts are underway to digitize the Hearst collections to increase access and allow researchers worldwide to search the holdings. Major projects are underway to update collections management facilities, and a full-time director will be hired, who will not be responsible for academic duties as previous directors, including Kirch, have been.

"We will be moving toward developing a more public face for the museum, sharing its priceless collections with the people of California and the world," Burnside said at the centennial exhibit opening.

Other anthropology centennial programs on campus include:

* An exhibit recognizing the early history of UC Berkeley anthropology, on display at The Bancroft Library through April 29. The exhibit uses records, documents and images held by The Bancroft Library, with additional artifacts supplied by the Hearst Museum and American Museum of Natural History.

* An international conference: "Internal Boundaries and Internationalization-Four Decades of Berkeley Anthropological Research on Japan," on March 15-16. It will be held at Kroeber Hall and is open to the public.

* A spring centennial conference, "Alfred Kroeber and his Legacy: A Centennial Conference." The April 12-13 event will celebrate UC Berkeley's past, but will focus as much on the present and future of anthropology.

For more information about UC Berkeley anthropology centennial events, visit http://ls.berkeley.edu/dept/anth/springconference.html.

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