News, University News

Haffenreffer Museum begins complete inventory of one million objects

Anthropology museum hires additional staff, in search of new location for entire collection

By
Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, March 7, 2019

The Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology plans to move its collection to a new Providence location. Most of the collection is currently stored in Bristol on land that will soon be transferred into a land trust.

The Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology’s current Providence location within Manning Hall presently houses 99 objects — approximately 0.001 percent of its collection — and has no facilities for long-term storage.

Every time new objects are requested on campus, the museum must move them 19 miles from its other location in Bristol, said Kevin Smith, the museum’s deputy director and chief curator. After years of unsuccessful attempts, the museum has received funding to initiate plans to consolidate all of its holdings in a new Providence location.

On Feb. 7, the University announced that the Haffenreffer Museum had received a $5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, The Herald previously reported. This grant was awarded to the museum in order “to catalog and prepare for the anticipated move of nearly one million ethnographic objects, archaeological specimens and images” to Providence from the museum’s main facility in Bristol, according to a University press release.

The Mellon Foundation — an organization whose goals include the preservation of the humanities and arts — also previously awarded the museum $500,000 to rehouse, conserve and photograph the museum’s Native American collections, which they announced in April 2018, The Herald previously reported.

The land on which the Haffenreffer’s Bristol facility resides was the site of a month-long encampment by members of the Pokanoket Nation and allies protesting the University’s ownership of the land in August 2017. The encampment ended with an agreement to transfer the land from the University into a preservation trust, The Herald previously reported.

Logistics of the move

The search for a new Providence location for the museum is still in “its very early stages,” said Emily Jackson, the museum’s operations and communications coordinator. The University is leading the search, rather than the museum itself, though the museum has given the University parameters regarding the square footage, security and climate control required for a new location, Smith said.

To “promote the use of the Haffenreffer collections for education programs” and research, the University is “prioritizing locations that are easily accessible to the Brown campus but also to public transportation and vehicle traffic,” Associate Provost for Academic Space Leah VanWey wrote in an email to The Herald. VanWey could not provide a timeline for the location selection process.

Both of the Mellon Foundation’s grants for inventory last for four years, but the museum’s move itself “depends on fundraising … (and) finding an appropriate location to move into,” said Robert Preucel, director of the Haffenreffer Museum and professor of anthropology. “We don’t know yet how much it would cost to purchase a building or (rehabilitate) it for our needs.”

Smith stressed the importance of meeting the four-year deadline. “We don’t want (the move) to be so far away that it becomes hard for people to … sustain momentum,” he said. At the end of the four years, “we should have everything effectively ready to move in.”

To oversee the inventory process, the museum will hire two photographers, a conservator, a project manager and a public outreach specialist, as well as four collections assistants and two to three students, Preucel said. These hires will be made “in the next month or so,” Preucel wrote in an email to The Herald. Using the funds from the 2018 grant, the inventory process for the Native American collections has already begun, and a collections technician has been hired.

The new workers will inventory all of the museum’s holdings and create “a clear and consistent record of what (the objects) are and the states that they’re in,” Jackson said. The conservator will also prepare any objects that “need repair or need conservation … for the move,” she added.

As the museum’s holdings are inventoried, each object will also be placed in the museum’s online collection catalogue, Jackson said. The database was launched in 2018 to increase the accessibility of the museum’s collections to both the general public and interested academics, The Herald previously reported.

Both of the Mellon Foundation’s grants also include funds for the purchase of “state-of-the-art (storage) cabinets” that are specially designed to house historical artifacts to ensure safe rehousing of the objects, Smith said.

Motivations for moving                                                                       

As the University’s “research and teaching museum,” the Haffenreffer helps students and faculty who request access or information about the objects in its collections. In addition, students and faculty curate “almost every exhibit” at the museum, Smith said.

But the distance between the University and the museum’s Bristol location creates logistical difficulties. In order to move objects from storage to the on-campus location, the objects have to be taken “out of a climate-controlled building … and that’s really dangerous to the objects,” Smith said.

In addition to the difficulties posed by a collection that is divided between Bristol and Providence, the Haffenreffer museum also struggles with community accessibility in both locations. While access to the Manning Hall gallery is free, it is “relatively inaccessible” to the general public due to its location on campus, Smith wrote. This gallery “can accommodate only one or two small exhibits at a time” and is the museum’s only public exhibition space, Smith added. Meanwhile, the Bristol location has been closed to public viewing since 2008 due to the fact that it does not meet fire code requirements for large group gatherings, Jackson said. 

“In a new museum in Providence, we will be fully open to the public as well as to Brown students and faculty,” Smith added.

The University’s current attempt to relocate the museum is not its first. “The goal of moving the museum out of (Bristol) has been ongoing for at least 20 years,” Smith said. In the 1990s, former University President Vartan Gregorian attempted to move the museum to Providence, but “the administration that came after him didn’t feel the same commitment” to the idea, and the plans did not progress, Smith added.

From 2007 to 2008, the University attempted to move the Haffenreffer once again, this time onto the Brown campus. But, “we all woke up one day, and the banks had failed, … (and) the recession came in,” preventing the plan from moving forward, Smith said. The museum staff is “very excited” that they now have the funding to plan a move, he added.

Current exhibitions and projects

Many departments at the University and the Rhode Island School of Design use the museum’s holdings as educational tools through the museum’s CultureLab project, which allows for hands-on experience with artifacts, Smith wrote. The museum also brings artifacts to K-12 schools across Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts through its Culture Caravan project.

The core of the Haffenreffer’s collection is of Native American origin, making up “approximately 45 percent” of the museum’s total holdings, Smith wrote. “We really do understand the need for incorporating indigenous and community voices into our exhibits,” he said. The two exhibits currently on display in Manning Hall, “Drone Warriors: The Art of Surveillance and Resistance at Standing Rock” and “‘Sacred is Sacred’: The Art of Protecting Bears Ears,” both focus on modern aspects of some Native American cultures and the protection of their land.

“Drone Warriors” — which focuses on the use of drones by protesters of the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation — was curated by Adrienne Keene, assistant professor of American studies and ethnic studies and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, and Gregory Hitch GS, a PhD student in American studies. “‘Sacred is Sacred’” covers recent protests to keep Bears Ears National Monument — a region with long-standing Native American ties — under federal protection. This exhibit was curated by Isabella Robbins GS, a public humanities master’s student and a citizen of the Navajo Nation.

“To have two exhibits, both curated by Native women, in the anthropology museum is really exciting,” Keene said. She also appreciated the museum’s efforts to put “anthropology in conversation with current issues” through the exhibits and believes that the anticipated move will give Native American community members more access to the collections.

Historically, museums have “been used as tools of colonialism to promote really negative ideas about Native communities,” Keene said. But the Haffenreffer “has actually been a lot more progressive than other anthropological museums,” she added.

The Haffenreffer museum “started conversations with (Native American) communities even before they were required to by law and (has) continued to work under” the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, Keene said. “There’s always more work that can be done,” but the Haffenreffer’s work in the community is more grounded than many other museums, she added.

The Haffenreffer looks to further develop its public outreach with local Native American communities through exhibits and educational programs. “We’ve done this in the past, but we’d like to … make it part of what we do on a regular basis,” Preucel said.

Providence “has a fairly large urban community of Native Americans from different parts of the country,” Smith said. The move “provides an opportunity to fit into that larger community structure.”

This article appeared in print under the headline “Haffenreffer Museum to catalog entire collection.”