In the drafty, cavernous basement of the University of California at Berkeley's Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology, graduate student researcher Alejandro de Avila examines a pair of 19th century Mexican trousers. The desk he huddles over is small, the lighting dim, and hanging just above him are two Alaskan kayaks from the late 1800s.
Surrounding him are aisles of clinical metal cabinets stuffed with the museum's bounty, aisles that also contain mousetraps and trash cans to catch rainwater prone to gush from the ceiling.
Aluminum foil shields overhead lights made to illuminate classrooms, not delicate objects. Dusty air ducts meander through the storage areas, sometimes doubling as shelving for oversized artifacts.
The fragile fabric de Avila studies is creased, having for decades been stored improperly. But he marvels at the weft wrap design of the pants, one of the finest known examples of Central American 19th century clothing. Hoping to someday produce a CD-ROM on Mexican ethnography, he takes meticulous notes and sketches the way certain threads form an intricate, lace-like weave.
"I know of no collection like this, not even in Mexico," he says of the museum's Mexican textiles. "It is extraordinary."
But how the textiles - and the rest of the research museum's nearly four million objects - are housed is another matter. Improving storage of this endangered treasure trove, which includes some of the largest and finest collections in the world, is a matter that rates top priority with Rosemary Joyce, the museum's director since 1994, and her small but devoted staff.
"When I first saw the basement, I was horrified at the overcrowding, the general level of disorganization, the amount of neglect," said Joyce, an anthropologist, archaeologist and associate professor. "Historically, things have been stuffed and stacked together, crowded into trays. In the long run, what it does is damage individual items.
"My major priority became getting things cleaned up and organized. And it will take decades to correct the storage problems."
The museum, which shares Kroeber Hall with the anthropology and art practice departments, not only houses its collections in the basement, but also beneath the Hearst Gym next door and in a former factory a few miles from campus.
In terms of the size and complexity of its collections, the museum has only two rivals among the nation's college and universities -
Harvard University's Peabody Museum, where Joyce worked previously as an assistant director, and the University Museum at the University of Pennsylvania. But when it comes to storage conditions - and the size of its staff, budget and exhibit space - UC Berkeley's museum falls short.
Scholars have long flocked to do research on the objects in storage, but the public only gets a glimpse. The museum's modest gallery measures a mere 4,000 square feet - Harvard's is four times the size. There also is no auditorium or rooms for classes or special events.
Still, as the museum approaches its 100th birthday in the year 2001, Joyce and her 16 staff members not only are entrenched in projects to preserve the collections, but in finding creative ways to display them. "Less than one percent of our objects can be installed in the gallery at any time," said Joyce."I once figured that it would take us 300 years to put everything on exhibit."
Without innovative efforts, generations might never see the Egyptian coffins, Chinese dragon robes, Etruscan stone sarcophagi, African masks, crocodile mummies, Southwestern pottery, walrus tusks carved by Alaskan Eskimos, California Indian basketry and eccentric Peruvian effigy bottles.
They could miss the 95 New Guinean garden posts, 12 cabinets filled with ancient Egyptian stoneware, cloth dolls from burial sites in Peru, an exquisitely decorated Plains Indian deerskin hide, classical Greek vases and a delicate Pomo Indian basket embellished with feathers, shells and beads.
"If we had more space," said Leslie Freund, the collections manager, "we could tell our story. We have a lot to say. These are collections we're holding in trust for the public, and they are things that get people jazzed."
Hearst was the museum's founder, namesake and patron saint. And it is her unrealized dream of a grand museum - and of a public that just didn't seem to care enough - that has left the museum in such dire straits today.
In 1891, after the death of her husband, George, a U.S. senator who left her with $20 million, Hearst traveled around the world, teaching herself about art and history. Fascinated by anthropology museums, the East Bay's resident philanthropist vowed to someday build and fill her own.
In 1897, Hearst became UC's first woman regent and started planning a museum for the Berkeley campus. She hired the finest archaeologists to scour the globe for artifacts, requiring that the excavations and collections be well-documented for the sake of future research. Major expeditions were mounted in Egypt, Peru, Europe and California.
In Egypt's Nile Valley, archaeologist George Reisner began in 1899 to uncover and catalog a vast collection of some 18,000 items spanning 2,000 years. His finds included the museum's single greatest treasure - the ancient Wepemnofret stela, a large stone slab depicting a 4th Dynasty prince and a list of items to accompany him to the afterlife.
That same year, archaeologist Max Uhle led a Hearst-sponsored dig in Peru. Uhle's superb collection of 9,500 objects, mainly excavated from graves, includes pottery and textiles that date from 1,000 B.C. to early Spanish Colonial times.
Hearst also hired experts in 1900 to begin gathering what would set her museum apart from all the rest - the world's best collection of California Indian artifacts. Today, the some 300,000 cataloged items range from full-sized tule reed canoes to miniature Pomo baskets, some as small as a thimble.
Hearst's expeditions quickly amassed an amazing bounty. In three short years, 26,000 items were collected for a museum. In all, Hearst-financed field work brought home 60,000 objects.
The ever-growing number of treasures at first were stored on campus in a cottage and in "The Tin Shack," a cheap tin building that doubled as a classroom for anthropology students. But the campus soon ran out of space.
In 1901, the UC Regents founded the Department of Anthropology and a museum, but they did not provide new buildings for either one. Oddly, the museum's first home wound up in San Francisco.
"This was foretelling," said Ira Jacknis, the museum's research anthropologist. "We never got a building at the beginning, and we have suffered ever since."
Expecting San Francisco to draw more museum visitors, the campus's ample collections were moved in 1903 to an empty building on what today is the UC San Francisco campus. The doors didn't open to the public on a regular basis until 1911.
The museum's first two directors - famous anthropologists Frederick Putnam and Alfred Kroeber - helped it gain prominence. But juggling teaching and field work, they could not give it their full attention.
By 1931, the expanding UCSF medical school forced the museum's closure, and the collections were returned to campus to be stowed away.
It was a dark time in the museum's history. Phoebe Hearst's finances had dwindled, and the seed money she'd provided for an anthropology program had not done what she'd hoped - inspired others to join the cause.
"When she ceased expeditions, there was no one else standing there waiting to contribute," said Rosemary Joyce. "One person's generosity and energy was not enough."
But Berkeley was not alone in its lackluster support. The nation had lost interest. "The 1930s through the 1960s was a quiet period for all anthropology museums," said Jacknis. "People were moving anthropology more into the realm of teaching, and after the Great Depression, there was the feeling that museums were expensive."
UC Berkeley's prized artifacts were crammed into an old civil engineering building and, for almost 30 years, were rarely seen. This hiatus "was time lost," said Joyce, "during which the collections could have been displayed, creating the broad public support and the consistent growth that the museums at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania now enjoy."
Hearst, who died in 1919, would have been heartbroken.
Unfortunately, the long-awaited campus museum was too cramped from the start to properly house or display its growing collections.
"We had the material for a major physical structure," said Jacknis, "but in the late '50s, there was a thought that UC Berkeley was first and foremost a teaching institution. That's the reason the exhibit space is so modest."
"But this is the best we've ever had," he said, "and it's all we've got."
Today, the museum is still battling space, storage and resource limitations. But it's staff members are fighting back with projects designed to overcome these obstacles.
While their efforts are not as exciting or exotic as expeditions to the pyramids, they are equally compelling. In the basement, students are tackling a major rehousing project for Uhle's Peruvian pottery collection. Emptying crowded cabinets where ancient artifacts are deteriorating from contact with sulfuric paper, acidic plywood trays and each other, they are cutting holes in sheets of polyethylene foam, placing each object in its own nest and returning the artifacts to the shelves.
"We're rehousing 1,000 pots a year - there are 4,000 pots in all," said Madeline Fang, the museum's conservator. "Our goal is to stop
the deterioration, decrease the crowding and get the objects into a more stable situation."
It's just one of many such preservation efforts under way.
Gallery space remains woefully limited, prompting the museum
to expand its practice of loaning artifacts to others, including the Berkeley
Art Museum and galleries at San Francisco International Airport. Major
museums also use UC Berkeley's collections in traveling exhibits and publish lush catalogs that promote the Hearst's objects in words and pictures.
"Maybe it's time to think of our building as the roots of the museum, where the storage is," said Joyce, "and that we have satellites elsewhere to exhibit our collections."
The public can visit the museum via computer on the museum's new World Wide Web page at www.qal.berkeley.edu/~hearst/. Eventually, more artifacts will be visible on the web site than could ever be shown in the gallery. A web site being developed jointly with The Bancroft Library will be about Alfred Kroeber and the Yurok Indians.
Financially strapped, the museum can no longer rely on the state to keep funding in step with rising costs. In addition to submitting an unprecedented number of grant applications, it's courting what appears to be a very receptive public.
The museum began a membership program in 1994. Many of the 500 members specify a particular interest - in Egypt, Peru or the California Indians - and get a close-up look at related artifacts. The closer people get to the collections, said Joyce, the more they care about them.
Believing the museum is missing a "contemporary voice," Joyce initiated a project to collect photographs and interviews that document
current Berkeley High School fashions. A future exhibit will feature photos
of modern-day ranches in Contra Costa County, and tattooing was the subject of a spring lecture.
Known for its historic California Indian artifacts, the museum is building bridges to today's California Indian communities. Miwok Indian interns now advise the museum on the care of sacred objects, summer workshops help preserve endangered Indian languages, Indian scholars are contributing to the republication of a campus series of classic books on California anthropology, and Indian artists and scholars visit the collections to study how their ancestors made regalia and baskets.
"We're doing all sorts of good stuff with so few people," said Jacknis, "but what attracts us to our jobs is the treasures. Every day, I'm so thankful to be here, working with these collections. You can't make this material up. Either you have it or you don't, and we've got it."