From the Bench: The Peabody Museum Maps 140 Years of Anthropology Fieldwork

This post is part of the “From the Bench” series celebrating the work of conservators. Part scientist, part detective, they work to preserve the past for the future. This series features the voices of conservators who are working on IMLS-supported projects in museums across the United States. For more information about IMLS funding for museums see

By T. Rose Holdcraft, Conservator and Administrative Head, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University

Thanks to an IMLS grant, Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology can now share more of its broad-ranging Map Collection with researchers. The collection includes maps and illustrations from the Abri Pataud region in France, hard-to-find documents of the UNESCO World Heritage archaeological site Chan Chan in Peru, and unpublished maps and drawings from the Lower Mississippi Valley Survey.

2012 Research visit. Studying Russell Train Smith’s original sketches of Las Monjas ruins at Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico.

In 2009, we received an IMLS Conservation Project Support grant award to improve access and preservation of the historical maps, architectural drawings, and archaeological site plans. These archival items document American anthropological history of the past 140 years. The Peabody Museum, the oldest museum dedicated to anthropology in the Western hemisphere, conducted some of the earliest fieldwork in North America including the Hopewell, Mississippian, and Mimbres culture sites. By the project’s end in April 2011, we had created more than 5,200 new database records, and conserved and re-housed 6,600 items. Within the year we saw significant increases in public access to this collection and in research and teaching based on it. Researchers search the museum’s Collections Online website to identify documents and then arrange an onsite visit to study the collections. For example, a researcher recently visited with her uncle and marveled at several drawings of Maya monuments from Chichen Itza penned in the 1930s by her grandfather.

With grant funds, we cleaned, humidified, and stored the documents flat in acid-free paper-based folders in new museum-quality cabinetry. Previously, the majority of items were inaccessible: compressed, folded, and/or rolled. The map room with a new large viewing platform provides a comfortable space to safely handle and study these often oversized historic anthropological documents. The project supported professional development of several interns who updated object records with newly realized information critical to future research and preservation.

One of the discoveries during the project was a set of drawings by Ann Axtel Morris. These large colorful illustrations of Maya monuments were used in a 2011 Harvard course. Another find was a printed map, heavily used and annotated during an early expedition to South Africa; it now will be featured in a 2013 publication.

Since 2011, 31 individuals have requested access to more than 50 items in the map collection.

The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology is very grateful for key funding provided by IMLS to make these valuable collections available to the global community. For further information, see this Peabody Museum article and the museum’s conservation web page about the project.