Six Decades at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology

Phyllis Rabineau, Vice President for Interpretation and Education (Retired), Chicago History Museum

rabineau-pI arrived at Brown in the fall of 1970, intending to pursue a Ph.D. in historic archaeology.  But in my second year of studies, as a result of Jane Dwyer’s graduate seminar, my interest was re-directed and I began to understand the potential for museum collections to serve as a significant resource for understanding societies through their material culture.  This newfound interest suggested a career path that I decided to explore.  

Jane’s seminar included the assignment to develop a research project based on the Haffenreffer Museum collection.  After spending several days investigating the contents of storage rooms and the documentation associated with different holdings, my attention was captured by ethnographic materials that the Museum had recently acquired through Kenneth Kensinger, a linguist and social anthropologist working among the Cashinahua people in the western Amazon.  Ken’s collection was documented with his detailed notes indicating individual makers’ names, their kinship relations, their social and ritual status, and a wide range of anecdotes and observations.  My research focussed on variations within the collection’s single largest group of objects — 78 feather headdresses.  Ken’s insightful documentation became a launchpad for exploring the social context underlying formal variations within this single category of material culture. Jane, whose own research centered on archaeological textiles from Peru, saw the collection’s potential for further analysis.  She commissioned articles from Ken and from additional students, and she secured funding from the NEA and from the Haffenreffer Family Fund.  Eventually my paper became a component of the Haffenreffer Museum’s first major publication, The Cashinahua of Eastern Peru (1975).

Energized by the Haffenreffer experience, I decided to take a two-year leave of absence from Brown in order to explore the potential for employment within the museum sector.  The search for my first job took up most of those two years but resulted in a 40+ year career committed to museum service, including positions in collections management and exhibition development at the Field Museum of Natural History; senior management for interpretation and education at the Chicago History Museum; and, most recently, board governance at Intuit, an innovative organization dedicated to outsider art.  In addition to my academic training at Brown, I’ve benefitted from professional development opportunities conferring expertise in visitor-centered methodologies applied to exhibition and program R&D.  I’ve been privileged to lead the development and design team for an 18,000- square foot interdisciplinary exhibition on Pacific Islands; to serve as President for the National Association for Museum Exhibition; to manage marketing and publications sectors, as well as exhibitions and education; and to be included in the consulting process for the National Museum of the American Indian, the National Museum of Natural History in Leiden, the Zoologisk Museum in Copenhagen, and the Museum of Anthropology at Wake Forest University.  

These, and many other meaningful experiences that have comprised my work life, all originated in the evocative surroundings of a graduate seminar amid the Haffenreffer Museum’s collections storage.


Phyllis Rabineau, M.A. Anthropology from Brown University 1973


  1. J. Patrice Marandel

    Dear Phyllis, I knew you so many years ago.. I sort of forgot where or how.. in Providence? This is the magic of the iNternet.. I wish you well. I just retired from the Los Angeles County Museum.

    • [email protected]

      Hello Patrice Marandel, were you also involved with the Haffenreffer Museum during your time in Providence? If so, we’d love to have you write a piece for Sixty at 60!

      • J. Patrice Marandel

        No, I ws chief curator at RISD but had connections with theHaffenreffer

      • J. Patrice Marandel

        No, I was chief curator at RISD but had connections with theHaffenreffer

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