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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 first
decade of his professional life to museum work,
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-
and he returned continually to museums and sion of Frederic W. Putnam, who continued to
material culture throughout the rest of his life. serve as director of Harvard's Peabody Museum.
This brief overview attempts to fill the gap in our Over the next decade Putnam became Kroeber's
knowledge about Kroeber. mentor in practical museum methods (Dexter
1989). Kroeber was officially appointed curator in
Early career and institutional context 1908, a year before Putnam's retirement, and he
Born in 1876, Alfred Kroeber grew up in became the Museum's director in 1925.1
Manhattan, where he spent much of his youth Kroeber's initial academic position was that of
collecting natural history specimens, an orienta- instructor (1901 to 1906), although he did not
tion that was to mark much of his later anthro- start teaching until spring of 1902.2 Gradually,
pology. During graduate work at Columbia in the teaching occupied more and more of his time. In
late 1890s, Kroeber came under the influence of 1907, Kroeber was spending two days a week in
Franz Boas, who initiated him into anthropology Berkeley; by 1910, three days; and by 1914, four
in its museum incarnation (Jacknis 1985). During of the five teaching days (T. Kroeber 1970:95).
the summers of 1899, 1900, and 1901, Kroeber
made three collecting trips to the Arapaho and Collecting
other Plains tribes, sponsored by the American Almost all of Kroeber's artifact collecting came
Museum of Natural History. The young anthro- in his first decade in California, when he did the
pologist purchased, catalogued, documented, and bulk of his ethnographic fieldwork. A review of
helped install artifacts (T. Kroeber 1970:53). the scope of Kroeber's collections readily indicates
In August 1900, Kroeber was appointed curator their wide span in cultures—at least eighteen dif-
at the California Academy of Sciences in San ferent groups before 1918, when he finished work
Francisco. After six weeks spent reviewing the on his summarizing Handbook of the Indians of
collections, Kroeber set out on a collecting trip, California (1925).
first to the north and the Yurok, Hupa, and Karok This broad, but essentially shallow, approach
around the Klamath River and then south to the stemmed from Kroeber's fundamental ethnologi-
Mojave. As the academy could not afford to pay cal goals. Building on the Boasian premise of sal-
for collections, which were usually donated, he vaging the remnants of pre-contact cultures,
left by Christmas. Kroeber confronted the enormous cultural, social,
In late spring of the following year, Kroeber and linguistic diversity of Native California. His
was offered a position in the new museum and response was survey and mapping (Darnell
Department of Anthropology at the University of 1969:299-318, Harner and McLendon in Wolf
California, then being formed under the patron- 1981:58-60, Buckley 1989). As Kroeber noted to
age of Phoebe Apperson Hearst (Kroeber 1946, Boas in 1903, 'Virtually all of my field work has
Thoresen 1975). At its inception, the program's been essentially comparative" (AMNH: 5/19/03). In
mission was collecting and research; teaching was that year, this on-going work was formally insti-
to be postponed. This institutional pattern—the tutionalized as the Archaeological and Ethnologi-
joining of museum research with university cal Survey of California, with the financial
instruction—was common at the turn of the cen- support of Phoebe Hearst (Kroeber and Putnam
tury; in fact, it was the norm (for Harvard, cf. 1905).
Hinsley 1992; for Pennsylvania, cf. Darnell 1970). Of these Californian groups, the two that
Between 1903 and 1931 this dual context in Kroeber collected from repeatedly were the Yurok
California was marked by a physical separation, and the Mojave. Within a given culture, Kroeber

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 he In the interest of salvaging pre-contact

could of their material inventory. His Yurok col- cultures, Kroeber tried to avoid—not always
lection, for instance, includes tools, some raw ma- successfully—acculturated objects and objects
terials, and unfinished objects (bow, elk-horn made for sale (cf. Washburn 1984). Outlining his
spoon). Specimens also come in multiples and philosophy to a trader, Kroeber wrote: "The
sets, such as net mesh-measures in different ma- requirements of our Museum make it most
terials (wood, horn), used for different kinds of desirable that we should obtain old pieces that
fish (sturgeon, salmon, eel, sucker); for different have seen use" (ALK/A.M. Benham, 5/15/07, Ace.
kinds of nets (drag, set); or for salmon at different 279). Nonetheless, he was willing to accept repro
times of the year (spring, summer, fall) (Ace. 86, ductions, which he noted in his inventories as
May-July 1902, 469 Yurok, Karok pieces). Among "models."
the more unusual items are a stick, paddle The quality and quantity of Kroeber's artifac
shaped, inserted in the mouth of a salmon to tual documentation seems to have improved over
break its head,' and a shell used to cover the time, though it was r a r e l y as specific as
thumb in making string" (Ace. 17, 1901). Merriam's or Culin's. He usually recorded the
Beyond making general collections, Kroeber tribe and object type, and occasionally noted
collected for specific research purposes He native names for basket designs. By 1904, as he
wanted to hold back baskets from an exchange if became more familiar with collecting sites, with
they possessed "designs that are unusual or new native cultures and environments, and perhaps
to me. I have collected very considerable material with the collecting process itself, he began to list
on the basket designs of the region and should the names of vendors (rarely the maker), and the
like to complete it" (AMNH: ALK/Boas: 4/18/02, Ace. place and date of collection (Diegueno/Luiseno
1902-61). Ace. 124; Yurok, 1907, Ace. 286).

The reasons for Kroeber's inattention to docu- Kroeber's institutional setting in a museum,
mentation are unknown, but students have noted with Putnam as director and Hearst as patron,
his p h e n o m e n a l memory (Harner in Wolf impelled him to return with artifactual collec
1981:58), and John Rowe (1962:409) observed re tions, but he was always pushing to expand the
garding Kroeber's archaeological documentation limits of collecting. Tb their credit, both Putnam
in Peru, "He kept no journal in the field, and his and Hearst supported Kroeber s more embracing,
notes were extremely sketchy. Boasian model of ethnography.
One reason, perhaps, is that unlike collectors
such as Stewart Culin, for Kroeber the artifact Collection management, exhibition, and
was not the goal of ethnography. From the start, publication
Kroeber adopted a basically Boasian approach to Kroeber spent considerable time in what we
fieldwork and the collection of artifacts, that is, would today call "collection management." A
they were only one part of a multi-media sense of his day-to-day work in the museum can
approach to recording Native cultures, which be gleaned from one of Putnam's review letters to
included texts (primarily in Native languages), Mrs. Hearst: "Dr. Kroeber is a most energetic and
ethnographic observations, sound recordings, faithful worker and is at the building early and
photographs, as well as artifacts. All were objects late looking after everything—cataloguing, pre
in some way, and all could ultimately be pre- paring labels to be type-written, and in arranging
served in the museum. J the specimens. He has identified nearly all the
Commenting on Kroeber's fieldwork methodol- baskets you sent. He has also added to the
ogy, Thoresen (1976:xxi) has noted that, labels many little figures explaining the meaning
of the symbolical decorations on the baskets" (PP:
A trip that began with a search for baskets FWP PAH, 12 11 04). Once, when complaining of
among the Yurok, for example, might well result the lack of qualified assistance, Kroeber wrote.
also in notebooks full of lists of names for Yurok "Practically every specimen that is catalogued
habitation sites with estimated population, has to be handled, placed, and named by me" (PP:
information on house types, statements of both ALK/FWP, 5 7 05).
reported and observed practices, and several It took a decade before the collections were
myths with comments on the informants. fully opened to the public, and only after 1905
were they accessible to students and scholars As
For Kroeber, however, artifacts were secondary to Kroeber described the situation, ' As fast as possi
linguistic notes and texts (folklore), and an ble, all collections were removed from their pack-
examination of his field work activity reveals that ing cases, catalogued, and made accessible in a
he spent relatively little time in collecting. system of classified storage The next step was to

2. California Room, Museum of

Anthropology, University of California,
ca. 1911. Photographer unknown.

3. Office, Museum of Anthropology,

University of California, 1907.
Photograph by Alfred Kroeber.
(neg. no. 15-4216).

glass in on shelves a selection of the more notable encouraged by Boas, which for California bas-
specimens in six of the larger rooms, as well as on ketry was conducted by Roland Dixon (1902)
stairs and hallways, and to put these on public among the Maidu and Samuel Barrett (1905,
exhibition. . . This system of public exhibition 1908) among the Porno.
began to be installed in 1910, and was formally
opened October 4, 1911, with a reception by Mrs. Post-1911 museum work
Hearst" (Kroeber 1946:7). From the surviving Between 1908 and 1912, Kroeber's most active
photographic documentation, it is clear that years of museum anthropology began to taper off.
Kroeber's exhibits essentially amounted to open In 1908, Mrs. Hearst's funding was substantially
or visible storage. Although large crowds visited reduced. As the university took over, the role of
the museum, especially during the time of Ishi the museum was diminished relative to the aca-
(October, 1911-March, 1916), Kroeber's exhibits demic department, with less funds for field
seem to h a v e been d i r e c t e d p r i m a r i l y to research. Putnam, Kroeber's museum mentor re-
researchers and students. 4 tired in 1909. In 1911, the museum was opened to
Kroeber's principal writings on Californian the public, and the following year Edward W.
material culture came in the form of three papers Gifford was appointed assistant curator. Gifford
on basketry: the first, in 1905, on the basketry of gradually assumed day-ti>-day responsibility for
the northwestern part of the state, 5 the second, in the running of the museum.
1909, on Porno basketry (based on Barrett's work, Kroeber, however, did not relinquish museum
cf. Bernstein 1985), and the last in 1922, on the anthropology. Between September, 1911 and
containers of the so-called "Mission" Indians from March of 1916, he worked with Ishi, the last Yahi,
southern California. This basketry research grew who lived in the museum and spent much of his
directly out of his Plains research, embodied, for time creating artifacts. As exemplified in the 1914
example, in his 1901 doctoral dissertation on the field trip to Ishi's Mill Creek homeland, much of
decorative symbolism of the Arapaho. Kroeber this work was self-consciously re-creative, as
was principally concerned with the evolution and Kroeber struggled to construct a picture of pre-
spread of design elements, and the relationship of contact Yahi culture (T. Kroeber 1961).
form and meaning (Thoresen 1977). This work Kroeber's orientation to material evidence
was part of a coordinated system of research, underwent a change after 1915, during his sum-

4. Work and storage area, Museum of

Anthropology, University of California,
1907. Photograph by Alfred Kroeber.
(neg. no. 15-4214).

mer field work in Zuni, when his seriation of pot- must be of people, and as humanist, not as admin-
sherds stimulated his fundamental interest in istrator" (1970:94).
cultural change and process (Rowe 1962, T. The problem with Theodora Kroeber's view is
Kroeber 1970:143-54, Thoresen 1971:199-211). not that it is untrue (as she is essentially correct),
This initial work was sponsored by the American but that—like much of her perspective on her
Museum of Natural History, where he spent a husband—it is retrospective, written with hind-
year's sabbatical in 1917-18, curating their sight. During his first decade in California,
Philippines collections (1919a, 1919b). He also Kroeber took museum work very seriously, devot-
made two ethnological collections in Zuni, one for ing a great deal of time to all of its aspects. This
the American Museum of Natural History in 1915 paper has been an attempt to restore Kroeber to
and one for his own museum in 1918. During the his early context in the world of museum anthro
1920s, Kroeber became preoccupied with Peru- pology. •
vian archaeology, which he investigated with his
students, but this must be a story for another Abbreviations
AMNH = American Museum of Natural History, Dept. of
PP- Frederic Ward Putnam Papers Correspondence, 1901-
Conclusion 1910, Re: University of California, Dept. of Anthropology;
Theodora Kroeber (1970:94) has claimed that Harvard University Archives.
her husband was not a "museum man." She
writes that Kroeber Notes

was meticulous in his care of the collections Kroeber retired from the Museum in 1941, Berving ats
orderly and businesslike in its bookkeeping and director emeritus until his death in 1960.
Kroebers academic positions were: instructor (1901-
administration; he respected and advanced the 06), assistant professor (1906-11), associate professor
role of the museum in the university and the (1911-19), full profesBor (1919-46), professor emeritus
community; and he enjoyed setting up exhibits (1946-60).
that were aesthetically satisfying and scientifi- Outlining this strategy in 1903 testimony to a com-
cally and historically meaningful. mittee investigating the Bureau of American Ethnol-
ogy, Boas explained that he instructed his students "to
collect certain things [artifacts] and to collect with
After all this, she sets limits to his museum an- everything they get information in the native lan-
thropology: "But for him the daily confrontation guage and to obtain grammatical information that is

necessary to explain their texts" (quoted in Hinsley Kroeber, Alfred L.

1981:268, cf. Jacknis ms) 1901 Decorative Symbolism of the Arapaho. American
4. An alternative approach to exhibition, directed to the Anthropologist 3:308-36.
general public, was adopted by Stewart Culin at The 1905 Basket Designs of the Indians of Northwestern
Brooklyn Museum (Jacknis 1991). California. University of California Publications in
5. "I have had all the material in hand since last Sep- American Archaeology and Ethnology, 2(4):105-64.
tember [1902], but until now have not been able to 1906 Guide to the Collections of the Department of
devote any time to it" (PP.ALK/FWP, 4/29/03). Anthropology, University of California. Berkeley: Univer-
sity of California Press.
References 1909 California Basketry and the Porno. American
Anthropology, ll(2):233-49.
Barrett, Samuel A. 1915 Frederic Ward Putnam. American Anthropologist,
1905 Basket Designs of the Porno Indians. American 17:712-18.
Anthropologist 7:648-53. 1919 Peoples of the Philippines. American Museum of
1908 Porno Indian Basketry. University of California Natural History, Handbook Series, no. 8.
Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology,
1922 Basket Designs of the Mission Indians of Califor-
Bernstein, Bruce nia. Anthropological papers of the American Museum of
1985 Alfred Kroeber and the Study of Pomoan Natural History 20(2):149-83.
Basketry. Paper presented in the meeting of Native 1925 Handbook of the Indians of California. Bureau of
American Art Studies Association, Ann Arbor, Michigan. American Ethnology, Bulletin no. 78. Washington, D.C.:
Buckley, Thomas Smithsonian Institution.
1989 Kroeber's Theory of Culture Areas and the 1946 The Museum's First Forty-five Years. Annual
Ethnology of Northwestern California. Anthropological Report of the Museum of Anthropology for the Year End-
Quarterly, 62(l):15-26. ing June 30, 1946. Pp. 4-11. Berkeley.
Darnell, Regna D. Kroeber, Alfred, and Frederic W Putnam
1969 The Development of American Anthropology, 1905 The Department of Anthropology of the University
1879-1920: From the Bureau of American Ethnology to of California. Berkeley: University of California.
Franz Boas. Ph.D. dissertation in Anthropology, Univer- Kroeber, Theodora
sity of Pennsylvania. 1961 Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Mid
1970 The Emergence of Academic Anthropology at the Indian in North America. Berkeley: University of
University of Pennsylvania. Journal of the History of the California Press.
Behavioral Sciences, 6:80-92. 1970 Alfred Kroeber: A Personal Configuration.
Dexter, Ralph W.
Berkeley: University of California Press.
1989 The Putnam-Kroeber Relations in the Develop-
Rowe, John
ment of American Anthropology. Journal of California
1962 Alfred Louis Kroeber. American Antiquity 27(3):
and Great Basin Anthropology, ll(l):91-96.
Dixon, Roland B.
1902 Basketry Designs of the Indians of Northern Cali- Thoresen, Timothy H.H.
fornia. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural 1971 A.L. Kroeber's Theory of Culture: The Early
History, 17(1): 1-32. Years. Ph.D. dissertation in American Civilization,
Hinsley, Curtis M. University of Iowa.
1981 Savages and Scientists: The Smithsonian Institu- 1975 Paying the Piper and Calling the Tune: The
tion and the Development of American Anthropology, Beginnings of Academic Anthropology in California.
1846-1910. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 11(3):
Press. 257-75.
1992 The Museum Origins of Harvard Anthropology, 1976 Kroeber and the Yurok, 1900-1908. In Yurok
1866-1915. In Science at Harvard University: Historical Myths. A.L. Kroeber. Pp. xix-xxviii. Berkeley: University
Perspectives. Clark A. Elliott and Margaret W. Rossiter, of California Press.
eds. Pp. 121-45. Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press. 1977 Art, Evolution, and History: A Case Study of
Jacknis, Ira Paradigm Change in Anthropology. Journal of the
1985 Franz Boas and Exhibits: On the Limitations of History of the Behavioral Sciences 13(2): 107-25.
the Museum Method of Anthropology. In Objects and Washbum, Dorothy K.
Others: Essays on Museums and Material Culture. 1984 Dealers and Collectors of Indian Baskets at the
George Stocking, ed. History of Anthropology, vol. 3. Pp. Turn of the Century in California: Their Effect on the
75-111. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. Ethnographic Sample. Empirical Studies of the Arts 2(1):
1991 The Road to Beauty: Stewart Culin's American
Indian Exhibitions at The Brooklyn Museum. Diana
Fane, Ira Jacknis, and Lise M. Breen. Objects of Myth Wolf, Eric R.
and Memory: American Indian Art at The Brooklyn 1981 Alfred Kroeber. In Totems and Teachers: Perspec-
Museum, 29-43. Brooklyn and Seattle: The Brooklyn Mu- tives on the History of Anthropology. Sydel Silverman, ed.
seum and University of Washington Press, Pp. 35-64. New York: Columbia University Press.
ms Franz Boas and the Ethnographic Object.