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Alfred Kroeber as Museum Anthropologist

Alfred Kroeber as Museum Anthropologist

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Published by: Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology on Apr 19, 2009
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Alfred Kroeber as Museum Anthropologist
Ira Jacknis
W
hile Alfred Kroeber is not remem-bered today as a museum anthro-pologist, he devoted most of the firstdecade of his professional life to museum work,and he returned continually to museums andmaterial culture throughout the rest of his life.This brief overview attempts to fill the gap in ourknowledge about Kroeber.
Early career and institutional context
Born in 1876, Alfred Kroeber grew up inManhattan, where he spent much of his youthcollecting natural history specimens, an orienta-tion that was to mark much of his later anthro-pology. During graduate work at Columbia in thelate 1890s, Kroeber came under the influence ofFranz Boas, who initiated him into anthropologyin its museum incarnation (Jacknis 1985). Duringthe summers of 1899, 1900, and 1901, Kroebermade three collecting trips to the Arapaho andother Plains tribes, sponsored by the AmericanMuseum of Natural History. The young anthro-pologist purchased, catalogued, documented, andhelped install artifacts (T. Kroeber 1970:53).In August 1900, Kroeber was appointed curatorat the California Academy of Sciences in SanFrancisco. After six weeks spent reviewing thecollections, Kroeber set out on a collecting trip,first to the north and the Yurok, Hupa, and Karokaround the Klamath River and then south to theMojave. As the academy could not afford to payfor collections, which were usually donated, heleft by Christmas.In late spring of the following year, Kroeberwas offered a position in the new museum andDepartment of Anthropology at the University ofCalifornia, then being formed under the patron-age of Phoebe Apperson Hearst (Kroeber 1946,Thoresen 1975). At its inception, the program'smission was collecting and research; teaching wasto be postponed. This institutional pattern—thejoining of museum research with universityinstruction—was common at the turn of the cen-tury; in fact, it was the norm (for Harvard, cf.Hinsley 1992; for Pennsylvania, cf. Darnell 1970).Between 1903 and 1931 this dual context inCalifornia was marked by a physical separation,with the museum in San Francisco and the uni-versity in Berkeley.At the museum, Kroeber began with an un-specified curatorial position under the supervi-sion of Frederic W. Putnam, who continued toserve as director of Harvard's Peabody Museum.Over the next decade Putnam became Kroeber'smentor in practical museum methods (Dexter1989). Kroeber was officially appointed curator in
1908,
a year before Putnam's retirement, and hebecame the Museum's director in 1925.
1
Kroeber's initial academic position was that ofinstructor (1901 to 1906), although he did notstart teaching until spring of 1902.
2
Gradually,teaching occupied more and more of his time. In1907,Kroeber was spending two days a week inBerkeley; by 1910, three days; and by 1914, fourof the five teaching days (T. Kroeber 1970:95).
Collecting
Almost all of Kroeber's artifact collecting camein his first decade in California, when he did thebulk of his ethnographic fieldwork. A review ofthe scope of Kroeber's collections readily indicatestheir wide span in cultures—at least eighteen dif-ferent groups before 1918, when he finished workon his summarizing
Handbook of the Indians ofCalifornia
(1925).This broad, but essentially shallow, approachstemmed from Kroeber's fundamental ethnologi-cal goals. Building on the Boasian premise of sal-vaging the remnants of pre-contact cultures,Kroeber confronted the enormous cultural, social,and linguistic diversity of Native California. Hisresponse was survey and mapping (Darnell1969:299-318, Harner and McLendon in Wolf1981:58-60, Buckley 1989). As Kroeber noted toBoas in 1903, 'Virtually all of my field work hasbeen essentially comparative" (AMNH: 5/19/03). Inthat year, this on-going work was formally insti-tutionalized as the Archaeological and Ethnologi-cal Survey of California, with the financialsupport of Phoebe Hearst (Kroeber and Putnam1905).Of these Californian groups, the two thatKroeber collected from repeatedly were the Yurokand the Mojave. Within a given culture, Kroeber
 
28
MUSEUM ANTHROPOLOGY
VOLUME 17 NUMBER 2
1.
California Room, Museum of Anthropology, University of California,
1911.
Photograph by S. M. Grow. (neg. no. 15-5397)
tried to collect as representative a sampling as hecould of their material inventory. His Yurok col-lection, for instance, includes tools, some raw ma-terials, and unfinished objects (bow, elk-hornspoon). Specimens also come in multiples andsets, such as net mesh-measures in different ma-terials (wood, horn), used for different kinds offish (sturgeon, salmon, eel, sucker); for differentkinds of nets (drag, set); or for salmon at differenttimes of the year (spring, summer, fall) (Ace. 86,May-July 1902, 469 Yurok, Karok pieces). Amongthe more unusual items are a stick, paddleshaped, inserted in the mouth of a salmon tobreak its head,' and a shell used to cover thethumb in making string" (Ace. 17, 1901).Beyond making general collections, Kroebercollected for specific research purposes Hewanted to hold back baskets from an exchange ifthey possessed "designs that are unusual or newto me. I have collected very considerable materialon the basket designs of the region and shouldlike to complete it" (AMNH: ALK/Boas: 4/18/02, Ace.1902-61).In the interest of salvaging pre-contactcultures, Kroeber tried to avoid—not alwayssuccessfully—acculturated objects and objectsmade for sale (cf. Washburn 1984). Outlining hisphilosophy to a trader, Kroeber wrote: "Therequirements of our Museum make it mostdesirable that we should obtain old pieces thathave seen use" (ALK/A.M. Benham, 5/15/07, Ace.279).Nonetheless, he was willing to accept reproductions, which he noted in his inventories as"models."The quality and quantity of Kroeber's artifactual documentation seems to have improved overtime, though it was rarely as specific asMerriam's or Culin's. He usually recorded thetribe and object type, and occasionally notednative names for basket designs. By 1904, as hebecame more familiar with collecting sites, withnative cultures and environments, and perhapswith the collecting process
itself,
he began to listthe names of vendors (rarely the maker), and theplace and date of collection (Diegueno/LuisenoAce. 124; Yurok, 1907, Ace. 286).
 
ALFRED KROEBER
AS
MUSEUM ANTHROPOLOGIST
29
The reasons
for
Kroeber's inattention
to
docu-mentation
are
unknown,
but
students have notedhis phenomenal memory (Harner
in
Wolf1981:58),
and
John Rowe (1962:409) observed
re
garding Kroeber's archaeological documentationin Peru,
"He
kept no journal
in the
field,
and his
notes were extremely sketchy.One reason, perhaps,
is
that unlike collectorssuch
as
Stewart Culin,
for
Kroeber
the
artifactwas
not the
goal
of
ethnography. From
the
start,Kroeber adopted
a
basically Boasian approach
to
fieldwork
and the
collection
of
artifacts, that
is,
they were only
one
part
of a
multi-mediaapproach
to
recording Native cultures, whichincluded texts (primarily
in
Native languages),ethnographic observations, sound recordings,photographs,
as
well
as
artifacts. All were objectsin some
way, and all
could ultimately
be pre-
served
in the
museum.
J
Commenting
on
Kroeber's fieldwork methodol-ogy, Thoresen (1976:xxi)
has
noted that,A trip that began with
a
search
for
basketsamong the Yurok, for example, might well resultalso
in
notebooks full
of
lists
of
names for Yurokhabitation sites with estimated population,information
on
house types, statements
of
bothreported
and
observed practices,
and
severalmyths with comments
on the
informants.For Kroeber, however, artifacts were secondary
to
linguistic notes
and
texts (folklore),
and an
examination
of
his field work activity reveals thathe spent relatively little time
in
collecting.Kroeber's institutional setting
in
a
museum,with Putnam
as
director
and
Hearst
as
patron,impelled
him to
return with artifactual collections,
but he was
always pushing
to
expand
the
limits
of
collecting.
Tb
their credit, both Putnamand Hearst supported Kroeber
s
more embracing,Boasian model of ethnography.
Collection
management, exhibition,
andpublication
Kroeber spent considerable time
in
what
we
would today call "collection management."
A
sense
of
his day-to-day work
in the
museum
can
be gleaned from one
of
Putnam's review letters
to
Mrs.Hearst: "Dr. Kroeber
is a
most energetic
and
faithful worker
and is at the
building early
and
late looking after everything—cataloguing,
pre
paring labels
to be
type-written,
and in
arrangingthe specimens.
He has
identified nearly
all the
baskets
you
sent.
He has
also added
to the
labels many little figures explaining
the
meaningof the symbolical decorations
on the
baskets" (PP:FWP PAH,
12
11 04). Once, when complaining
of
the lack
of
qualified assistance, Kroeber wrote."Practically every specimen that
is
cataloguedhas
to be
handled, placed,
and
named
by
me" (PP:ALK/FWP,
5 7
05).It took
a
decade before
the
collections werefully opened
to the
public,
and
only after
1905
were they accessible
to
students
and
scholars
As
Kroeber described
the
situation, ' As fast
as
possible,
all
collections were removed from their pack-ing cases, catalogued,
and
made accessible
in a
system
of
classified storage
The
next step
was to
2.
California Room, Museum
of
Anthropology, University
of
California,ca. 1911. Photographer unknown.

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