Six Decades at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology

David W. Gregg, Ph.D. – Executive Director, Rhode Island Natural History Survey


David Gregg visiting the Haffenreffer Museum’s Collection and Research Center.

I first visited the Haffenreffer Museum in Bristol, RI, in conjunction with the Anthropology Department’s welcome back party, in September of 1989. It was just days after I’d commenced my Ph.D. studies at Brown which, little could I have guessed, would take the next 11 years, protracted in large part because of my involvement with the Haffenreffer. In late afternoon sun beside the Outing Reservation building, a handful of faculty looked relaxed and made small-talk while we grad students lounged around on picnic tables trying to look like we belonged there.

It was a little awkward. Speaking for myself, at least, it can sometimes be hard to get a handle on fellow anthropologists in these social situations, which is ironic because supposedly we’re experts on social interactions. But within even a small department, there is such a range of theoretical orientations, topical interests, field sites, and methodological focii that it can be hard to know what to say to someone just back from the field. By contrast, the sub-set of us that were archaeologists came to share a social understanding with relative ease. Throughout my time at Brown, students and faculty working at the Haffenreffer Museum, sometimes but not exclusively archaeologists, also had a little extra in common and came to be my most important compatriots and fellows throughout my time at Brown.

One reason for having the party in Bristol was to connect new students with the Haffenreffer. The museum lurked behind us, low in the side of the hill, looking gray in every sense of the word (it wouldn’t receive its new roof, new copper soffits, and new stucco, with lighter, cheerier, beige paint, for another two years). I distinctly remember being taken aback by the stained, dated, 1930’s aesthetic. At some point a portion of us walked across the parking lot for a tour. Like everyone who ever stepped out of the sun into the North American gallery, I was blown away by the transition: the visitor was folded into a dark embrace of wood paneling, glinting with copper accents that served to enhance the prestige and accent the preciousness of the colorful, (relatively) brightly-lit objects visible through a veritable panorama of glass that swept around the room from floor to (apparently) ceiling. From the new aluminum entry door to the new carpet and track lights, key features signaled that its “vintage” look might well be deliberate, perhaps “curated.”

That day we saw the about-to-open exhibit, “Out of the North”, featuring the museum’s subarctic collection of beadwork, furs, and birch bark, one of the museum’s marquee collections. In the Mt. Hope Room (off the main gallery, built on the round foundation of an old feed silo) was what the Providence Journal reviewer called a “simulated igloo.” Around the walls was an historical photo, enlarged to life size, of an Inuit family sitting inside their igloo; overhead was a dome of polyester batting for snow. A newspaper account of it quoted a visitor emerging from the Mt. Hope Room saying, “Is it my imagination or is it really colder in there?” Probably, but it was more an effect of the dysfunctional heating in the old former dairy barn than a triumph of multi-sensory exhibit design, much as curator Barbara Hail and exhibit installer Rip Gerry might have wished for the latter. Also on display was the first of what would become a long series of student exhibits, opened the previous spring, “Thinking About Things.”

I was not at Brown for its newly announced museum studies program but I must have recognized something interesting at the Haffenreffer. In spring 1990, I took then director Shepard Krech’s seminar on museum theory and management. It was extremely engaging because of Shep’s willingness to throw the Haffenreffer Museum itself open to students to explore, interrogate, and critique. Shep’s philosophy was that a university-based museum had to be more than a library of objects, the museum itself had to be the object presented to the students for study, its exhibits, programs, collecting practices, and administrative operations all had to be accessible. I remember when, as part of this airing of museum laundry, our class was shown into the “wine cellar.”

The Haffenreffer Museum had a large collection of archaeological material that had been indifferently maintained since Louis Giddings died 35 years earlier (not including the Alaskan collections of Giddings and Anderson, which had always been curated separately to modern standards). As the museum’s collection of delicate feather, skin, and basketry artifacts had grown over that time, they had displaced artifacts made of stone which had already been in the dirt.

The secret wine cellar of the Haffenreffer Museum.

These latter were moved into more distant, darker, and less well heated storage areas such as the barn attic and the wine cellar. The wine cellar was accessed through a secret door (really a secret door) in the middle of a range of exhibit cases in the North American Gallery and it was in fact a cellar, reputed to have been used for the storage of wine in Rudolf’s day, with concrete floor, walls, and roof. Water dripped from the ceiling and walls, swags of cobwebs hung everywhere, yellow, gray, and green mold grew colorfully on wooden crates scattered about, and built into its dark, remote ends were jail cells, with sturdy iron bars and grates. Believe it or not, the largest single object in this Hollywood dungeon was a real human skeleton arranged on a bed of sand in a wooden case, a recreation, from some earlier era of museum exhibitry, of a Woodland period Native American burial.

With Congress at that time debating NAGPRA (the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act), Shep recognized that the museum would need to get on top of its archaeological holdings and that human remains such as “Block Island Man,” the dweller in the cellar, would be the most important part of that task. I guess based on my archaeological qualifications and my performance in class that spring, Shep hired me in the summer of 1990 to survey the human remains held by the Haffenreffer and with help from graduate student Dan Odess and Professor Nick Bellantoni’s physical anthropology class from the University of Connecticut, I submitted a report in June 1993.

In the summer of 1991, my collections management work moved on to the non-osteological archaeology, most of it stored in the unheated, uncooled, poorly lit barn attic. First, to provide some cross ventilation Rip Gerry and I reopened the dormer windows that had been boarded up years earlier. We carefully installed screens to keep the bugs out but there were so many ladybugs in the attic the screens served much more to keep bugs in. We made several large sets of shelves to allow exhibit furniture, field gear, and educational props to be cleared aside and to set up tables made of saw-horses and plywood. We stood up 10 foot poles to position floodlights over the tables and substituted flood light bulbs for the regular bulbs on the rafters throughout. Finally, we vacuumed up drifts of 50-year-old straw and slightly younger dead ladybugs that filled the cracks between the floorboards. Because the barn had a post-and-beam frame, the only safe way to store a lot of stones there was to keep them directly above the beams. So that’s why, when I first saw them and ever afterwards, the archaeology collection was kept in two narrow ranks running nearly the whole length of the building.

Unlike the Haffenreffer’s ethnographic collections, at the time, relatively little was known about its archaeological collections (again, excluding the Alaskan archaeology). The collection had been used for teaching archaeology and for occasional exhibit pieces for the galleries; Brian Robinson had recovered some wonderful information out of a collection of Maritime Archaic artifacts he located there. But for the most part, all we knew was that much of the material had been gathered from plowed fields around southern New England by artifact hunters decades earlier and acquired by Rudolf Haffenreffer with only general provenience and few other records. No one knew how Haffenreffer had come by many of the “best” artifacts in the collection, such as the Ohio River Woodland-period banded slates, hoes, and cache blades. Like any archaeological site, the barn attic as I found it was the product of patterns of human behavior and natural processes over time. I proposed to Shep that I excavate the deposit and try to describe the formation processes in such a way that we could extrapolate backwards where we were able to discern patterns and at least preserve context where couldn’t. I thought it would be important to try to ignore the archaeological meaning of the artifacts themselves for the time being because if we got involved in that, we’d never get through sorting and rehousing the whole bunch.

Across much of the top of the piles lay what I came to call “teaching trays.” These were boxes or trays containing a single, usually very good example of each of several types of stone tool or other artifact. For generations, graduate teaching assistants had been going into the collection for the best artifacts from cultures they were teaching about and then after class returning them to the attic in the tray but not putting them back individually.

Under the teaching tray stratum was a deposit of what turned out to be painted plywood shelves each lined with thin sheets of colored foam rubber and labeled “North America” or “Palaeoindian” or some such with die-cut cardboard letters. Row upon row, hundreds and hundreds of arrowheads and other small lithics were stuck to the foam either with glue or as the foam had decayed with age and attic conditions by the rubber itself. We know that at the time of his death, Rudolf Haffenreffer’s displays included vast arrays of arrowheads on shelves and boards and at some point in the early Brown period his exhibit aesthetic had been reproduced using the latest in “high tech” materials (the foam). When it came time to change the exhibits, the shelves were carried into the attic as is.

In many cases the artifacts themselves were unlabeled but because the boards themselves were labelled, if we could keep them associated at least we ‘d have saved something. Where boards had separated, artifacts had literally fallen through the cracks so as I moved each board I dug through the boxes below and picked up the loose arrowheads. Where it wasn’t clear which board a point had come off of, the color of the adhering foam sometimes allowed its provenience to be ascertained.

The bottom layer included about a dozen red, metal fire buckets, half a dozen or so wooden Narragansett Lager beer crates, and dozens of large wooden drawers that must have come from an old, since dismantled shelving system. The fire buckets were interesting because they were rusty and the artifacts in them were rust stained. By looking at rust marks on the floor of the wine cellar we concluded that these were once stored there and a roof leak or a burst pipe must have filled them. They were drained and moved to safety in the attic. The drawers were covered in generations of numbered labels, none with any obvious relation to the objects then in them.

A word about numbers and labels: Rudolf Haffenreffer was not a primary collector; in other words he didn’t go out and find artifacts in fields, he collected collections already assembled. Many of the dozen or so major collections he acquired had already been numbered by its original collector and eventually Haffenreffer, too, began numbering artifacts. So it was possible for there to be as many numbers “1”, “2”, “3”, etc. as there were collections and no quick way to tell which one an artifact numbered “157” belonged to. By laying out many, many examples of each number together, eventually patterns of handwriting, ink color, and other features allowed us to distinguish major collectors’ series from each other. As each box and tray was emptied and recorded, I was able to recognize objects that had become separated from sets, the best example being the very important Russell cache of 319 early woodland blades from North Hadley, Massachusetts. When I began, quite a few were missing but they turned up in various teaching trays and other boxes and buckets.

One of the biggest problems with laying out 100,000 stone tools for side-by-side analysis is simply to secure enough horizontal space. If each on average occupies, say 6 square inches (2″x3″), that would be 4,166 square feet, or about the entire floorplate of the barn. Many arrowheads were already housed in tiny wooden museum drawers dating from the Haffenreffer era that were easily stacked several high on metal shelves and all that was needed was to replace the cotton batting or sift the artifacts out of drifts of vermiculite that had been added as padding. But we were still short of space. One day I was driving to the museum past a bait shop in Warren and beside the road was a pile of wide, flat cardboard boxes with lids that would be perfect for sorting arrowheads. Being an inveterate scrounge, I pulled a quick U-turn and inspected a sample. They would have been perfect except that they’d been used to ship clam worms from Maine and each was filled with muddy seaweed and smelled like a salt marsh. But the logo from the maker was printed on the bottom and although the company’s phone rep seemed a little confused at first about why Brown University wanted several hundred worm flats, they filled the order and we were in business.

While 10 rows of 10 arrowheads isn’t very bulky or heavy, 10 rows of 10 stone hoes is a different box of worms. The weight of the hoes…and axes, pestles, and all the other larger stone tools required a different solution and here’s how I reasoned it out: the easiest source of cheap, sturdy square footage was sheets of plywood, at 32 square feet a piece. If they were quartered and had edges made from 2×4’s, then they’d be trays of a sort, not too bendy and small enough that a curator could lean in and work with materials across the whole surface. But how could one person stack and then sort quarter sheets of plywood filled with stone? With a gantry crane, obviously. So while Barbara, Thierry, and the rest of the staff probably should have been paying more attention, I built a gantry crane out of 2x4s with a cable winch and wheels. It ran in tracks screwed to the attic floor astride that main floor beam which supported stack after stack of 2′ x 4′ plywood trays filled with rocks.

Reconstructing historical collections literally piece by piece encouraged us to research the original collectors, such as brothers John and Clarence Richardson or Edward Anthony. One especially interesting collection was that of Jacob Paxson Temple. Haffenreffer purchased it from his widow Ada Underhill Cheyney of West Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1929 and when it first came to Bristol many of the 10,000 archaeological lithic artifacts and over 200 ethnographic items were carefully labeled as to provenience with ink and paper. Over the years, however, many labels had been lost or separated. Luckily the collection had originally come with a photographic catalog in which the artifacts were pictured laid out in groups. Astonishingly, the photography was so good that by using a microscope I was able to recognize many of the now unlabeled artifacts by their pictures and read their original labels, thus recovering long-lost information. Our understanding of Rudolf Haffenreffer was much advanced by the careful study of his archaeological collection as an artifact in and of itself.

I started with the human remains in 1990 and that highlighted the need to do something with the lithic collection. I worked on that in 1991 and 1992. Graduate student and now Rhode Island state archaeologist Charlotte Taylor also helped. I eventually handed the project off to graduate student Jarmo Kankaanpää who worked on it for a couple more years. After deputy director Kevin Smith began at the museum in 2002, he continued the work with a renewed commitment and greater attention to archaeological information and he and others have made many important discoveries in the collection since then.

The “Passionate Hobby” exhibition.

Having the attic project to work on, I was around the museum a lot and got involved in many other projects. I developed a sandbox archaeology activity for the education program that continued for many years, taught a night-school course on highlights of world archaeology, co-curated the second student exhibit, “Envisioning Africa,” and helping to install Ann McMullen’s Columbian Quincentenary exhibit “Entering the Circle.” The work on Rudolf Haffenreffer’s archaeology led directly to the “Passionate Hobby” exhibit and catalog (available online – Chapter 3: The Archaeology Collection by David W. Gregg,  starting on page 135). I helped write the collection policy and was on the board of the Friends. In 1997, when the move to the Old Stone Bank was being planned, Shep hired me to help represent the museum at the endless series of meetings. As that project ebbed and flowed I kept busy co-teaching the museum studies seminars that produced the exhibits “Tourist Art!”, “Housing the Spirit”, and “Death, Defense, Distinction: Weapons and Power.” I supervised grad student Juliette Rogers’ “Packrats for Posterity” exhibit and curated smaller exhibits including one on James Houston and Inuit art and one on the Senegal photos of David Sapir.

The Haffenreffer Museum is one reason my Ph.D. took 11 years. But it is also the main source of skills and experience I draw on daily in what has so far been a 14-year career as the director of a small non-profit that systematically organizes historic and modern information on Rhode Island’s biodiversity and interprets it for students and the public.

…and it all began with a nervous visit to a very unpromising concrete bunker one fall day in 1989. Never judge a book by its cover!


1 Comment

  1. Bryan Lorber

    It’s very sad that Brown University and its wealthy, influential alumni have allowed this priceless, world class collection to remain in storage, inaccessible to the general public. True, a small museum is open to the public on the Providence campus where select items are nicely displayed but here, on a beautiful, wooded, costal property in an isolated corner of Bristol, there are rooms full of priceless artifacts from around the world that are only seen, studied, and enjoyed by a few select academic scholars in buildings that can only be described as substandard. It’s time for Brown to recognize its responsibility in caring for this collection by initiating a capital campaign to build a state of the art museum and educational center worthy of Rudolf F. Haffenreffer’s legacy.

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