When the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology unveils “All the World Is Here” on April 22, it celebrates both the institution’s sesquicentennial and (part of the exhibition’s subtitle) “the invention of American anthropology.”
Castle McLaughlin, curator of North American ethnography and a principal in creating the exhibition, explains that under Frederic W. Putnam, the museum’s director from 1875 to 1909, it became respectable to extend the study of man from Greece and Rome, the ancient pinnacles of Western civ, to the contemporary species. That prompted organizing donated treasures from the China trade, or vacuuming up Native American ceremonial wares—the precursors to and fledgling work of scientific anthropology. It also became academically sound to treat the Mesoamerican past, at sites like the Maya capital at Copán, with the same respect accorded Athens—a simultaneous broadening of archaeology. This era coincided with Harvard president Charles W. Eliot’s 40-year transformation of a classically oriented New England college into an ambitious research university, curious about everything.
Not quite everything can be displayed on the splendidly refurbished fourth floor: the Peabody holds 2.75 million objects, plus more than 500,000 historic images. But the more than 600 items exhibited are a rewarding plenitude.
The front two-thirds of “All the World” is keynoted by a dog sledge used in Greenland, from Admiral Robert Peary’s Arctic expeditions: a potent symbol of exploration. Surrounding areas highlight Putnam’s directorship, teaching, and research (like the mica Hopewell face excavated from Ohio’s Turner Mound Group, below); some of the ceramic pots collected in the 1880s during expeditions privately underwritten by Mary Hemenway (here, a Hopi water pitcher shaped like a female spirit being); and items gathered by Alice…