Engaged Anthropology: Brown’s Haffenreffer Museum collection reflects social issues

As the sepia-tinged blanket of fall warms the landscape with hues of burnt orange, yellow and red, college campuses across New England are coming to life with all the bustle of a new semester. At Brown University, institutions such as the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology support classroom life by providing students with extensive resources and international networks pertaining to their disciplines. But Haffenreffer is special, even by Brown’s standards. A supergroup convergence of history, anthropology and archaeology, the institution describes its purpose as inspiring “creative and critical thinking about culture by fostering interdisciplinary understanding of the material world,” and it does so by moving beyond simply having a (rather excellent) collection of exhibits. A timetable of public lectures, performances, symposia and festivals focused on making anthropology an interactive field has paved the way for reaching a broader audience, while the institution’s comprehensive collections and research center in Bristol attracts some of the finest minds in the study of global cultures, ancestral as well as contemporary.

“It is something we call ‘engaged anthropology,’” explained Emily Jackson, Haffenreffer’s operations and communications coordinator. “It was the title of our fall lecture series in 2017, but the message fits the work of the institution as a whole.

“We try to reflect current social issues in what is displayed at the museum. At the moment, our exhibitions include Drone Warriors: The Art of Surveillance and Resistance at Standing Rock, and Sacred is Sacred: The Art of Protecting Bears Ears.”

And Haffenreffer’s outreach tactics are as contemporary as the themes of its presentations. Launched on September 12, the museum’s inaugural #CrowdCurated event engaged social media users across the world in voting for which of the institution’s rarer objects would go on public display.

“#CrowdCurated is a brand-new exhibit project for us, experimental,” reveals Jackson. “The idea had been pioneered by other institutions, but this is the first time it’s being done by Haffenreffer. The project has allowed us to uncover new objects never on display before; some had been locked in a case, others stuck somewhere on campus, all from different time periods from all across the world.”

Of the items on review, an Acheulean biface axe crafted by extinct human species, Homo erectus, dating from between 500,000 and 200,000 years ago, is by far the oldest, while an elaborate owl made of black and white glass beads by Zuni artist Margaret Edaakie highlights the complexity of Native American beadwork. Voting for #CrowdCurated will continue until October 6, after which the final objects will be installed during a hands-on open house on October 20.

Outside the world of exhibit spaces and display cases, Haffenreffer provides opportunities for faculty and students to work with collections and the public. Teaching through objects and programs in off-campus classrooms, pre-college students are afforded an opportunity to explore archaeology, history and learning in an entirely different way.

However, while the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology is a beacon of education domestically, the institution’s impact is truly global. Take Dr. Michelle Hayeur Smith, an anthropological archaeologist with research interests in Viking-age Iceland as an example. Through her work with the museum, Dr. Hayeur Smith recently received her third National Science Foundation (NSF) award from NSF’s Arctic Social Sciences Program. A potentially groundbreaking study, the project aims to “provide an engendered, interdisciplinary perspective on trade, women and the emergence of early globalized economies,” by demonstrating the importance of women’s work in medieval markets and, in turn, understanding globalized economics of the present day.

Equally as far from the Ocean State are the concerns of the institution’s Circumpolar Project across the Arctic Circle, through which Brown faculty, staff and students have developed joint research projects with various Federal agencies, including the US National Park Service and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as Native American groups in Alaska. The project also has been involved in international research activities in Sweden, Finland, Russia, Canada, Iceland and Denmark, but the most valued collections are from the northwestern Alaskan archaeological sites of Cape Krusenstern and Onion Portage; collections that are regarded as among the most complete series of archaeological materials from the coastal and the interior Arctic zones of North America in existence.

Explore the world without leaving Rhode Island. Take a jaunt up College Hill to Manning Hall and become better acquainted will the goings-on at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology. The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday between 10am and 4pm. Admission is free, with (limited) metered two-hour parking available on the streets around the museum.

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